Geology of Austria

Most of Austrias surface is covered by the Alps, and most of its caves and mines are also in the Alps. So we concentrate on the geology of the Alps. This mountain ridge divides Europe from the east to the west. It starts in the west at the Rhone valley, around Grenoble. Then it crosses Switzerland and Austria and ends in the east south of Vienna, close to the Austrian Hungarian border. This mountain ridge was formed by the alpine orogeny, which is a result of the collision of the European and the African plate.

The orogeny started already 150 Million years ago, with a process of folding and thrusting of the sedimentary rocks of this area. The packages of rocks, called thrust sheets or nappes, were pushed on top of each other. This process culminated in the actual uplift of the Alps which goes on for the last 10 Million years. The Alps are lifted continually, and the erosion continually moves away material.

A cross section of the Alps shows a certain symmetry: the northen and southern ridges are composed of limestone, the center is composed of crystalline rocks. A simplified explanation is: the center is formed by older rocks which come from a greater depth. The uplift is higher in the center and gets continually lower to the north and south.

The Austrian caves are located in the limestone ridges of the Nördliche Kalkalpen or the Südliche Kalkalpen (=northern and southern limestone Alps). In this mountain ridges many large caves can be found, spacious cave systems with many vertical shafts and huge chambers, which are often called alpine caves or caves of alpine type.

The geography, with high limestone mountains and deep valleys, is a precondition for really deep caves. The deepest caves of the world are found in such areas: the Pyrenees, the Rocky Mountains, the Alps or the Ural. The deepest cave of Austria, the ShowcaveLamprechtsofen, has a vertical range of 1,632 m [2002] and is the second-deepest cave of the world.

This caves are high above sea level, their genesis seems impossible under todays climatic conditions. They were formed during times with other temperatures and climate. Either it was warmer with much more rain, or there were glaciers, which produced high amounts of melting water during summer.

In Austria the mining industry started thousands of years ago and brought wealth and power to their ancestors. In the 1970s and 1980s many mines had to be shut down for economic reasons. A long tradition came to an end. Show mines try to keep up some of these traditions by giving a general idea of the dangerous working conditions below the surface of the earth.

Austria has a wealth of different mines, and many are developed as tourist mines. Because of the fortunate geology in this mountains, a broad range of minerals and ores can be found. And during the centuries the mining technology changed, so many different kinds of mines existed in this country. Visiting some of the mines gives a good insight in at least 2,000 years of mining history.