Switzerland is divided into three natural topographical regions: (1) the Jura Mountains in the northwest, rising between Switzerland and eastern France; (2) the Alps in the south, covering three-fifths of the country’s total area; and (3) the central Swiss plateau, or Mittelland, consisting of fertile plains and rolling hills that run between the Jura and the Alps. The Mittelland, with a mean altitude of 580 m (1,900 ft), covers about 30% of Switzerland and is the heartland of Swiss farming and industry; Zürich, Bern, Lausanne, and Geneva (Genève) are on the plateau. The central portion of the Alps, around the St. Gotthard Pass, is a major watershed and the source of the Rhine, which drains into the North Sea; of the Aare, a tributary of the Rhine; of the Rhône, which flows into the Mediterranean; and of the Ticino, a tributary of the Po, and of the Inn, a tributary of the Danube, which flow into the Adriatic and the Black seas, respectively.
The highest point in Switzerland is the Dufourspitze of Monte Rosa at 4,634 m (15,203 ft); the lowest is the shore of Lake Maggiore at less than 195 m (640 ft). The second-highest and most celebrated of the Swiss Alps is the Matterhorn (4,478 m/14,692 ft), long a challenge to mountaineers and first scaled in 1865.
Switzerland has 1,484 lakes, more than 12,900 smaller bodies of water, and many waterfalls. Lake Geneva (Léman), with an area of 581 sq km (224 sq mi), is considered the largest Swiss lake, though its southern shore is in France. Lake Neuchâtel, the largest lake totally within Switzerland, has an area of 218 sq km (84 sq mi). Switzerland also contains more than 1,000 glaciers, many the relics of Pleistocene glaciation. The largest area of permanent ice is in the Valais.
The climate of Switzerland north of the Alps is temperate but varies with altitude, wind exposure, and other factors; the average annual temperature is 9°c (48°f). The average rainfall varies from 53 cm (21 in) in the Rhône Valley to 170 cm (67 in) in Lugano. Generally, the areas to the west and north of the Alps have a cool, rainy climate, with winter averages near or below freezing and summer temperatures seldom above 21°c (70°f). South of the Alps, the canton of Ticino has a warm, moist, Mediterranean climate, and frost is almost unknown. The climate of the Alps and of the Jura uplands is mostly raw, rainy, or snowy, with frost occurring above 1,830 m (6,000 ft).
Variation in climate and altitude produces a varied flora and fauna. In the lowest zone (below 550 m/1,800 ft), chestnut, walnut, cypress, and palm trees grow, as well as figs, oranges, and almonds; up to 1,200 m (3,940 ft), forests of beech, maple, and oak; around 1,680 m (5,500 ft), fir and pine; around 2,130 m (7,000 ft), rhododendron, larches, dwarf and cembra pine, and whortleberries; and above the snow line, more than 100 species of flowering plants, including the edelweiss. Wild animals include the chamois, boar, deer, otter, and fox. There are large birds of prey, as well as snipe, heath cock, and cuckoo. Lakes and rivers teem with fish. As of 2002, there were at least 75 species of mammals, 199 species of birds, and over 3,000 species of plants throughout the country.
The Swiss have long been aware of the need to protect their natural resources. Switzerland’s federal forestry law of 1876 is among the world’s earliest pieces of environmental legislation. Since 1953, provisions for environmental protection have been incorporated in the federal constitution. A measure creating a federal role in town and rural planning by allowing the central government to set the ground rules for the cantonal master plans took effect in January 1980.
Air pollution is a major environmental concern in Switzerland; automobiles and other transportation vehicles are the main contributors. In 2000, the total of carbon dioxide emissions was at 39.1 million metric tons. Strict standards for exhaust emissions were imposed on new passenger cars manufactured after October 1987. Water pollution is also a problem due to the presence of phosphates, fertilizers, and pesticides in the water supply. The nation has 40 cu km of renewable water resources, of which 73% of the annual withdrawal is used for industrial purposes. The country’s cities have produced about 3.1 million tons of solid waste annually. On 1 November 1986, as a result of a fire in a chemical warehouse near Basel, in northern Switzerland, some 30 tons of toxic waste flowed into the Rhine River, killing an estimated 500,000 fish and eels. Despite a Swiss report in January 1987 that damage to the river had not been so great as was first thought, most environmentalists considered the chemical spill a major disaster.
Chemical contaminants and erosion damage the nation’s soil and limit productivity. In 1986, the Swiss Federal Office of Forestry issued a report stating that 36% of the country’s forests had been killed or damaged by acid rain and other types of air pollution.
Important environmental groups include the Swiss League for the Protection of Nature, founded in 1909; the Swiss Foundation for the Protection and Care of the Landscape, 1970; and the Swiss Society for the Protection of the Environment. The principal federal agency is the Department of Environment.
According to a 2006 report issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), threatened species included 4 types of mammals, 8 species of birds, 1 species of amphibian, 4 species of fish, 30 species of invertebrate, and 2 species of plants. The northern bald ibis and the Italian spadefoot toad are extinct; the false ringlet butterfly, Italian agile frog, and marsh snail are threatened. The bear and wolf were exterminated by the end of the 19th century, but the lynx, once extinct in Switzerland, has been reestablished.