Austria: land and people

   Though covered by mountains over 62 percent of its land, modern Austria is geographically diverse. The entire area of the country amounts to 83,855 square kilometers in the heart of central Europe. Only western Austria—the Vorarlberg, Tyrol and South Tyrol, parts of Styria, and Salzburg—is distinctively alpine, both climactically and topographically. In the east, northeast, and southeast, where the provinces of Lower Austria, the Burgenland, Upper Austria, and parts of Carinthia lie, the terrain flattens out dramatically. Hills taper down to the Vienna Basin, which is one of the major breaks between the Alps and the Carpathian Mountains farther to the east. From here, one enters the Pannonian Plain, which extends through Hungary; Lake Neusiedl, which lies on the border between Austria and Hungary, is so shallow that great parts of it disappear temporarily during extended droughts. Conversely, the water table lies very near to the surface of the land. Flooding can be a serious problem during protracted rains and violent thunderstorms, which deluge the region in July and August.
   If its mountains are the predominant feature of Austria’s terrain, the Danube River runs a close second. Only the Vorarlberg, which the Rhine touches, is completely disconnected from Danubian influence. Flowing generally from the north to the southeast, the Danube crosses the country for 351 kilometers, from the German border at Passau to its exit into Hungary in Lower Austria. Its tributaries—the Alpine Inn, Enns, Salzach, and Drau—are considerably shorter, but play a very important role in the Austrian landscape and economy. Although the Danube has long challenged navigators—in some places it is very shallow, in others exceedingly narrow—the river and its feeders are central to Austria’s highly developed hydroelectric infrastructure. Austria also contains several large lakes, some of alpine origin, which along with its skiing facilities, are the basis of an elaborate tourist and recreation infrastructure. Indeed, it is through foreign vacationers and sightseers that the country has managed to maintain a favorable balance of trade. Austria’s complex geography shapes its climate as well. At the center of Europe, it is open to influences from the North Atlantic; the Mediterranean; and somewhat less regularly, a hot and dry—in winter, cold and dry—drift of air that comes from the south of Russia. The alpine regions are most affected by the Mediterranean and North Atlantic flows, both of which contribute to frequent rainfall, or snow, especially at higher elevations. Salzburg and environs are locally notorious for so-called Schnürlregen, steady precipitation that falls not in drops, but in ribbonlike streams or Schnürl. Weather on the southern side of the Alps is more heavily steered by Mediterranean conditions, particularly one called Föhn, a warm, moist air mass from the south that can arrive at any time, but is particularly common in the fall. Austrians and south Germans generally attribute behavior from simple lethargy to thoughts of suicide to such episodes.
   The eastern part of Austria, particularly Lower Austria and the Burgenland, can be searingly hot, with temperatures regularly topping 30°C in July and the first half of August. However, the winters in this part of the country are by no means as snowy as in the west. Generally abundant rainfall in western and central Austria has created its dense forest cover, one of Europe’s largest. More than 39 percent of the terrain of the entire country is wooded. Forestry and refining of forest products remains one of Austria’s major industries. It is for this reason that there has been great concern since the late 1970s about acid rain (moisture combined with highly polluted drifts of air that are produced by industries and domestic consumers throughout Europe). The trees of Upper Austria, particularly the conifers, have been especially hard hit. By the beginning of 2006, the total population of Austria was 8,265,900: 7,451,900 Austrians and 814,100 foreign residents, about half of whom came from the former Yugoslavia or Turkey. The overwhelming number of Austrians are native speakers of German. Small, largely bilingual minorities of Hungarians, Slovenians, and Croatians live in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country. The most thickly settled, thought not necessarily most prosperous, areas of the country lie in the east. The largest city, and the capital, is Vienna, with around 1.5 million inhabitants. Graz, the capital of Styria to the southeast, is the second largest municipality, with around 240,000 residents.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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