Travels in Geology: To the top of Europe: Jungfrau, Switzerland

The 4,158-meter-tall Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps, part of the western Swiss Alps. Credit: ©Wengen-Muerren-Lauterbrunnental AG, www.swiss-image.ch The 4,158-meter-tall Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps, part of the western Swiss Alps. Credit: ©Wengen-Muerren-Lauterbrunnental AG, www.swiss-image.ch

By Naomi Lubick

Credit: AGI/NASA Credit: AGI/NASA

Intrepid visitors can take at least two paths to the top of Europe: an excruciating and dangerous ascent up the north face of the Eiger to the top of the nearly 4-kilometer-tall peak, or a comfortable (if steep) train ride through that mountain that allows less-athletic visitors to reach the neighboring Jungfrau. 

Most travelers choose to visit Jungfrau (pronounced YOONG-frow), perched in the Bernese Alps, part of the western Swiss Alps. The train ride is a several-hour ascent through tunnels carved through the mountains in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and makes for an easy way to climb more than 2,000 meters of elevation. The steep tracks require a “tooth-train” that ratchets its way through the more than 7 kilometers of tunnels. The pleasant ride on plush red velvet seats emerges at 3,475 meters at the top of Jungfraujoch, a saddle between Jungfrau and the nearby Mönch peak, and then makes another stop at 3,580 meters at the Jungfraujoch observatory, the Sphinx.

The Mönch (or Monk, at 4,107 meters) and the Eiger may be more famous climbing destinations, but Jungfrau (at 4,158 meters) is of more interest to scientists from around the world. Researchers (and tourists) have been traveling to Jungfraujoch (“Jungfrau” means “maiden” or “virgin” and “joch” means “yoke”) for nearly a century to mount long-term experiments at the Sphinx observatory and the research station below it, at 3,454 meters. 

The site is a breathtaking place to visit — not only for its beauty, but also because of the thin air. Setting up and running experiments take longer than you would think, “by a factor of pi,” the station’s director emeritus Erwin O. Flückiger of the University of Bern, recently joked. “Even thinking takes longer. Everything uses oxygen,” he told some recent visitors, so “you have to think ahead.”

The Sphinx observatory, with a view of the Aletsch Glacier in the background. The observatory is home to a variety of high-altitude experiments. Credit:  ©Jungfrau Railways, www.swiss-image.ch  The Sphinx observatory, with a view of the Aletsch Glacier in the background. The observatory is home to a variety of high-altitude experiments. Credit: ©Jungfrau Railways, www.swiss-image.ch

The research station began as a meteorology and astronomy observatory in the early 1900s. It has now morphed into an extreme high-altitude research station, where scientists have examined high-altitude medical conditions in experiments with rodents and humans (with an eye toward space travel), environmental issues such as the deposition of pollutants in high-alpine ecosystems, and how photovoltaic cells function at high altitude in experiments for solar power. 

One recent photovoltaic project tested solar panels for an experimental solar-powered plane, famed balloonist Bertrand Piccard’s Solar Impulse project. Research on solar and cosmic rays starting here in the 1950s led to two Nobel prizes. Ginette Roland, a physicist from the University of Liège in Belgium, has been tracking neutrons at the observatory to detect incoming solar rays for 40 years, living at the Sphinx off and on for weeks at a time.

Above: An indoor viewing terrace at the Sphinx observatory. Right: Visitors brave the outdoor viewing platform. Credit: Right: Naomi Lubick; left: ©Switzerland Tourism, www.swiss-image.ch/Stephan Engler Above: An indoor viewing terrace at the Sphinx observatory. Right: Visitors brave the outdoor viewing platform. Credit: Right: Naomi Lubick; left: ©Switzerland Tourism, www.swiss-image.ch/Stephan Engler

In the past decade, environmental scientists have discovered that the mountain is the perfect place to measure pollutants in the winds that travel across Europe. A team from Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research, first reported in 2006 the detection of increasing levels of specific hydrofluorocarbons meant to replace the CFCs that were banned by the Montreal Protocol in 1989 because of their impacts on the ozone layer. From this high peak, the researchers eventually pinpointed the source of the hydrofluorocarbons — also scheduled for phase-out soon due to their effects on climate — to the Po Valley in Italy.

And for the past 75 years, MeteoSwiss, the national meteorological bureau, has tracked the weather here. The agency’s instruments have measured winds that gust across the glacier that fills the valley above Jungfraujoch traveling at more than 100 kilometers per hour. 

The windy conditions make conducting high-altitude experiments risky, and the ice that accumulates at such elevations, in centimeters-thick clumps, makes moving parts on scientific devices difficult to maintain. And when the weather gets really bad, some research projects anchored to the Sphinx’s platform blow away — though scientists generally work hard to make sure their expensive equipment is well-anchored, in part to keep their data intact, but also so their equipment does not harm tourists on the observing platforms nearby. 

At one of the train stops on the way to Jungfraujoch, researchers and a mountain manager check out a spot for an atmospheric monitoring device. Credit: : Naomi Lubick At one of the train stops on the way to Jungfraujoch, researchers and a mountain manager check out a spot for an atmospheric monitoring device. Credit: Naomi Lubick

That blustery, snowy, sleety weather led in part to the tunnels that house the train ride to the top of Jungfraujoch. On the way up, occasional stops allow visitors to peer out of windows mounted in the Eiger’s face to the valleys below and the neighboring mountains. The carved-out observing caves give passengers an up-close view of the rocks, which are mostly granite gneiss, at the center of the mountain.

These rocks are the result of the Alpine orogeny that built the mountain range 40 million to 20 million years ago. The collision between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates led to several cycles of uplift (the mountains still rise about half a millimeter a year) and compression, with metamorphism to boot. Old granites, gneisses and schists, with some amphibolites (remnants of oceanic crust thrust over continental crust), overlay younger carbonate sediments. Later erosion and multiple glaciations shaped the valleys. Mesozoic ocean sediments caught up in the orogeny are exposed in places at the top of Jungfrau. 

Although the research station is generally off-limits to tourists, you can get pretty close to the highest heights where scientists mount their equipment by visiting the Sphinx observing platform, which offers views of the surrounding mountains and spectacular panorama of the valleys beyond — but only on a clear day. Sometimes, the observatory seems to be perched on an island above a sea of fog, which can also be a staggering view. Beneath the observatory’s visitors’ center, with its gift shops, restaurants and scientific displays of current and past experiments at the Sphinx, you can walk through a tunnel carved into the valley’s glacier, the Aletsch Glacier, with icy layers and a smooth ice floor. 

Felix Seiler, one of the Sphinx’s caretakers, points to one reason why high-altitude research is difficult to conduct: the centimeters-thick clumps of ice and snow that accumulate on scientific equipment. Credit: Naomi Lubick Felix Seiler, one of the Sphinx’s caretakers, points to one reason why high-altitude research is difficult to conduct: the centimeters-thick clumps of ice and snow that accumulate on scientific equipment. Credit: Naomi Lubick

Aletsch is the largest glacier in the Alps at 23 kilometers long, and it moves more than 100 meters a year. It is also now retreating rapidly due to natural causes as well as anthropogenic climate change, according to reports from researchers at ETH-Zürich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, losing tens of meters every year for the past few decades. Since the 1870s, the glacier has lost a total of 2,885 meters of ice, according to the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network. 

If you have the time and physical ability (and if the weather allows), take the tunnel trail to get out on the glacier and explore the frozen scenery on a pair of skis or a snowboard. Rental equipment is available at Grindelwald Sports (www.grindelwaldsports.ch) from April through September, but you will have to pick it up before your trip to the top of Jungfraujoch. (Stopping in the town of Grindelwald, in the valley beneath Jungfrau, may also give you the opportunity to explore the ski slopes and sledding runs nearby.)

If the high elevation proves problematic during your visit, you don’t have to stay at the top of Europe for long. Have a cup of coffee in one of the several restaurants in the visitors’ center, look around from the viewing platform, and then head back to the slopes below. The paths that radiate out from Kleine Scheidegg and other nearby villages provide some enticing skiing in winter and beautiful high montane hikes in summer, accompanied by the ringing of cowbells. 

The village of Grindelwald in the valley beneath Jungfrau is home to ski slopes and sledding runs. Credit: Bottom: ©Jungfrau Railways, www.swiss-image.ch; top: ©Switzerland Tourism, www.swiss-image.ch/David Willen The village of Grindelwald in the valley beneath Jungfrau is home to ski slopes and sledding runs. Credit: Bottom: ©Jungfrau Railways, www.swiss-image.ch; top: ©Switzerland Tourism, www.swiss-image.ch/David Willen

Even a quick trip to this region shows why the area surrounding the North Wall of Eiger-Mönch-Jungfrau was designated as a World Heritage Site in 2001, in part because of its geology, alpine ecosystems and large glacier. But despite its moniker as the top of Europe, Jungfrau and its neighboring peaks are by no means the highest on the continent: That honor goes to nearby Mont Blanc, summiting at 4,810 meters.

Getting There And Getting Around Switzerland

The Jungfrau Railway (pictured here in front of the north face of the Eiger) takes visitors to Jungfraujoch. Credit:  ©Jungfrau Railways, www.swiss-image.ch The Jungfrau Railway (pictured here in front of the north face of the Eiger) takes visitors to Jungfraujoch. Credit: ©Jungfrau Railways, www.swiss-image.ch

Jungfrau and other peaks in the Bernese Alps are easily accessible by train or bus from Geneva or Zürich. The Swiss train system is excellent, and generally on time. Buses are reliable as well, run by Swiss Post (post office, bank and bus system, all in one, and all three are available from mountaintops to lakeshores, in all kinds of weather). 

The train trip to Jungfraujoch, on the cog wheel train route known as the Jungfraubahn, begins to tooth its way up at Kleine Scheidegg, a village below the Eiger (also the site of the finish line for the Jungfrau Marathon every September). The ride is not cheap; check the Jungfrau Railways website for the latest prices and information: www.jungfrau.ch.

For your trip to Jungfrau, consider staying in Interlaken. This formerly aristocratic resort town harbors some vintage elegance; you can wander the paths through town and take boat rides on the lake, ringed by mountains. Or head straight for the mountains and stay in Grindelwald or around Kleine Scheidegg. Check www.ebookers.com or www.venere.com for hotel, chalet and apartment deals from the European side of things. Don’t be surprised that hotels in Europe charge a small fee for each additional person in a room.

Small family-run hotels in the mountains are good jumping-off points for hikes, and generally have restaurants attached. The Hotel Bellevue des Alpes, the chalet where the movie “North Face” (originally “Nordwand” in German) was filmed recently, sits at the foot of the Eiger in Kleine Scheidegg and costs about $180 a night: www.scheidegg-hotels.ch.

Naomi Lubick

Lubick (www.naomilubick.com) is a freelance science writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. 

Friday, November 12, 2010 - 06:00

Making Jurassic Tracks in the Jura

Left and right: Dinosaur footprints at the Courtedoux tracksite in the Jura Mountains. Credit: courtesy of D. Marty, Paléontologie A16 Left and right: Dinosaur footprints at the Courtedoux tracksite in the Jura Mountains. Credit: courtesy of D. Marty, Paléontologie A16

Just to the north of the Swiss Alps, the gently sloping, lower-elevation Jura Mountains — namesake of the Jurassic — sprawl across the French-Swiss border and into Germany to the east. Composed of limestone and karst deposits, the low-lying mountains harbor caves and eroded cliffs, mountain chalets, Swiss watch factories — and dinosaur tracks. 

The footprints buried here came to light nearly a decade ago, when construction on the Transjurane Highway, meant to join Switzerland and France, unearthed layer upon layer of fossilized footprints. The Courtedoux tracksite, one of the first track-bearing layers uncovered in 2002, contains imprints made by multiple species of sauropods and tridactyls (three-digit bipeds, some of which are thought to be theropods), including herbivores and carnivores both large and small. Eventually, geologists identified more than 280 trackways, with footprints ranging from several centimeters to about a meter long that number in the thousands. Results from a conference on the Jura trackways will be reported in an upcoming issue of the Swiss Journal of Geosciences.

A partnership between the local Swiss cantonal government and its French equivalent set up the “Paléontologie A16” project to preserve the tracks while highway construction continued. Some trackways now run beneath highway overpasses and are covered with sand to protect them from erosion and possible vandalism or other human interactions. But sometimes, these sites are open for tourists. 

Daniel Marty, a paleobiologist on the project for the Swiss canton of Jura, cautions that while interest in the sites has been high, the trackways generally are closed except for on special exhibition days. Check ahead with the project (www.jura.ch/DFCS/OCC/Paleojura.html) to find out if the dinosaur trackways are open during your visit. 

Either way, the local museum housing some fossils and other items of interest from the Paléontologie A16 project is in the quaint old city of Porrentruy, about a kilometer’s walk from the town’s main train station. Check the schedule before you go, as the museum’s short hours in the afternoon could determine your schedule for the rest of your day; the cost is about $3. 

Even if the Jurassic tracksites are closed during your visit, another kind of highway that traverses the Jura mountain range, from Zürich to Geneva, could make for a lovely walk. The Jura Hoehenwege, or the Jura Crest Trail, at 310 kilometers long, takes about two weeks to traverse on foot. 

But you don’t have to walk the whole thing. Gentle walking, with some gondelbahn rides (basically ski lifts) to negotiate especially steep places, will take you through several larger cities, with stops along the way at mountain restaurants. Generally, hiking in the Jura is best in spring and summer, but be prepared for thunderstorms. 

Going on foot may be the best way to see the geologic strata of the range. If you only have a day or two to spare, consider taking one of the many geologic trails in the region. One day-long hike marked with placards describing where you are standing in geologic time starts in the historic town of Solothurn: Take the Swiss Post Bus from the main train station to Oberbalmberg, the end of the line, and follow the geologic trail marked with explanatory plaques from the Kurhaus Balmberg hotel. Near the top of the Wanderweg (German for “walking trail”), at about 1,300 meters in elevation, stop at the Kurhaus Weissenstein hotel for a drink and gipfeli (Switzerland’s version of a croissant). Get a local hiking book for a good map of the region; this walk covers about 12 kilometers and 700 meters in elevation.

Naomi Lubick

Lubick (www.naomilubick.com) is a freelance science writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. 

Friday, November 12, 2010 - 06:00

Walking with Dinosaur Bones

Outside the Aathal Dinosaur Museum on a winter day. Credit:  Naomi Lubick Outside the Aathal Dinosaur Museum on a winter day. Credit: Naomi Lubick

If you need a dinosaur fix and you are visiting Zürich, take a half-day detour to the nearby Aathal Dinosaur Museum (www.sauriermuseum.ch). A quick train ride drops you in the small town of Aathal, about 500 meters from the historic textile factory that now houses the museum. A second-class daypass will get you there and back, as well as around the city and out to the airport, and costs about $22.

A giant turtle fossil on display inside the museum.  Credit:  Naomi Lubick A giant turtle fossil on display inside the museum. Credit: Naomi Lubick

Although some of the Aathal Dinosaur Museum’s displays feel as though they were built in someone’s garage, the museum covers a wide array of dino-related topics fairly well. The main lure is actually imported: a collection of Jurassic fossils from the Howe Ranch site in Montana, with huge skeletons of sauropods that loom over visitors. Special exhibits include gorgeous fossil assemblages of several-centimeter-long fish and tiny vertebrates, as well as huge half-meter ammonites that are often found in the Jura Mountains, once home to an ocean during the Mesozoic. Across the street, you can buy your own fossils at the museum’s affiliated mineral shop.  

Naomi Lubick

Lubick (www.naomilubick.com) is a freelance science writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. 

Friday, November 12, 2010 - 06:00

Naomi Lubick

Lubick (www.naomilubick.com) is a freelance science writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. 

Friday, November 12, 2010 - 06:00