The Geography of the Dolomites: An Overview On What These Mountains Really Are.

The Geography of the Dolomites is not so straightforward as it may seem at first sight.

The word Dolomites can be taken to have two different meanings: 1) those mountain groups characterized mainly by the presence of Dolomite rocks, which can be found mostly within the Alpine section of the range defined precisely as ‘Dolomites’ – but also in other groups elsewhere in the Alps, belonging to other sections. On the contrary, another meaning refers to that part of the Alps defined as 'Section Dolomites’, which has clear geographical limits and a territorial continuity. So, basically, to simplify: one definition refers to the rock composition, while the other is more geographic (territorial) in nature.

Delimitation

Normally, then and to put somehow the two definitions together with the term ‘Dolomites’ one usually refers both to a collective group of mountains characterized by the prevailing presence of Dolomite rock and a clearly identified region – and this area is conventionally delimited as contained by the following rivers and valleys: Rienza/Rienz (Val Pusteria/Pustertal) to the north; Isarco/Eisack and Adige/Etsch valleys to the W; Brenta (Valsugana) to the S and Piave (Cadore) in the E.

Some Dolomite groups, though, stray off from this traditional delimitation, and further confusion has probably been brought about by the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, as it includes some significant sections to the E of the Piave valley; but as a matter of fact, some important groups have always been identified as 'Dolomites' outside of this 'traditional' area such as the Lienzer Dolomiten and some parts of Carinthia (in Austria), the Dolomiti di Brenta, in Western Trentino, and the Piccole Dolomiti, between the provinces of Trento and Vicenza, in Veneto. Even elsewhere in the Alps there are scattered Dolomite outcrops here and there – such as, for example, on the summit of Gran Zebrù//Königsspitze (3,857 m), in the Ortles/Ortler (3,905 m) Cevedale (3, 769 m) group.

More confusion could be engendered by the fact that the Marmolada – generally considered the highest peak of the Dolomites – is in fact not constituted by Dolomite rock at all, but rather in prevalence by white limestone, very compacted and derived from dismantled crystalline reefs, with inserts of volcanic material; therefore strictly speaking from a geological point of view, the Marmolada should not be considered part of the Dolomites at all, despite lying at the very heart of the region.

In this page, therefore and for the purpose of clarification without over-simplifying – the Geography of the Dolomites will be intended, in its most restricted meaning, as such: a well-defined region within the Alps,dominated (albeit not exclusively) by the presence of Dolomite rock. But then, within the region, there are further elements of differentiation.

Classification

Firstly, the Dolomites are then being subdivided into two zones by the course of the river Cordevole, the main distinction being between Dolomiti Orientali (Eastern Dolomites; that is, to the east of Cordevole) and Dolomiti Occidentali (Western Dolomites, to the west of Cordevole).

As anticipated above, the 'Partition of the Alps' (the first ever classification of the Alps, dated 1924) individuated a section called ‘Dolomiti’, further subdivided into four groups: Alps of Fassa and Gardena; Group of the Marmolada; Alps of Ampezzo and Cadore; Alps of the Valsugana and Primiero.

The geography of the Dolomites, according to this definition, is similar to the most recent definition by the SOIUSA (an acronym that stands for 'Unified International Orographic Subdivision of the Alpine System').

The definition of the SOIUSA is usually the one held today as collectively more valid, and it does not differ substantially from the ‘Partition of the Alps’, but rather expands on it. It identifies five so-called sub-sections (further divided into 13 groups, which I will not list here, as they double definitions already given previously); these sub-sections are: Dolomiti di Sesto, Braies and Ampezzo; Dolomiti di Zoldo; Dolomiti of Gardena and Fassa; Dolomiti di Feltre and Pale di San Martino; Dolomiti di Fiemme.

Some other institutions present some variations from this basic delimitation, as defined by the SOIUSA; notably, the Dolomiti di Fiemme are excluded, while parts of the Prealpi Vicentine and the Prealpi Bellunesi are included.

As far as the delimitation is concerned, the Dolomites border to the N with the Alps of the Western Tauri, separated by the Sella di Dobbiaco/Toblachersattel; to the E with the Alpi Carniche and of the Gail, separated by the Passo di Monte Croce Comelico; to the S and SE with the Prealpi Venete, separated by the Sella di Artèn and the Sella di Pergine; to the W by the southern Alpi Retiche, separated by the Adige; to the NW by the eastern Alpi Retiche, separated by the Isarco.

Rotating clockwise, the limits of the geography of the Dolomites are therefore: Sella di Dobbiaco/Toblachersattel, Valle di Sesto, Passo di Monte Croce Comelico, Padola stream, river Piave, Feltre, Sella di Artèn, river Cismon, Valsugana, Sella di Pergine, Trento, river Adige, river Isarco, river Rienza (Val Pusteria/Pustertal), Sella di Dobbiaco/Toblachersattel.

Origin of the name

The Dolomites take their name from the French naturalist Déodat de Dolomieu (1750-1801), who first studied the particular type of rock predominant in the region, which was given the name ‘Dolomite’ in his honor, and that is constituted mainly by the mineral ‘Dolomite’ ('Dolomia' in Italian), formed of double calcium and magnesium carbonate (MgCa(CO3)2).

Geological history

Despite the fact that a page has been specifically dedicated to the geology of the Dolomites, a few notes on this subject – however sketchy – are necessary in this context too.

The genesis of this type of carbonate rocks begins with the accumulation of shells, corals and calcareous algae, in a tropical marine environment similar to the actual coral reefs, found today in areas with a latitude and longitude very different from the current position of the Dolomites such as the Bahamas and Eastern Australia.

This process took place during the Triassic around 250 million years ago when warm and shallow seas existed in the area. At the bottom of these seas hundreds of meters of sediment were accumulated, and these – pressed by their very weight and through losing their internal fluids – were slowly transformed and compacted into rocks. Subsequently, the clash between the European and African plates, which is at the basis of Alpine orogenesis, caused these same rocks to emerge, pushing them to rise for more than 3,000 m above sea level.

The actual landscape is sharp and rough-edged, and articulated in sudden drops and rises. To determine such a transformation certainly contributed the folds and fractures in the rocks along the sliding faults, to whose movements corresponded several earthquakes, episodic volcanic explosions and the related deposits, as well as differential erosion, linked to the atmospheric agents and the weak points present in the rocks.

The rising of the Dolomites is still taking place now; today, these mountains display the whiteness of carbonate deriving from the coral reefs, the sharpness of the rocks involved in recent orogenesis, as well as the incisions due to powerful external agents – such as ice, wind, rain, snow and freezing-thawing cycles.

In their geologic future, the Dolomites will continue to grow, encompassing new sections of rocks, pushed by the clash between the European and African plates, which is still underway, not dissimilarly to what happens in the Himalayas; the disappearance of this push will determine the prevalence of external agents, which have a tendency to soften and flatten the mountainous landscape (as for instance can be appreciated in the Urals).

Vegetation

Up to about 1,800 m (northern aspect) and 2,200 m (southern aspect), the vegetation is formed mainly by conifer woods with Norway spruce, Silver Fir, Larch and Scotch Pine; in the vegetation band above, one can also find Dwarf mountain Pine and Arolla Pine. At the highest altitudes above the tree line, one will mainly find meadows and pastures, with Blueberry and shrubby Rhododendrons; sometimes these habitats are also quite extended, such as at the Alpe di Siusi/Seiseralm, at Prato Piazza/Platzwiese and on the Altipiani Ampezzani.

Protection

Several parks protect the unique natural heritage of the Dolomites. This has been crowned with the recognition of the uniqueness of the Dolomites at global level by the UNESCO. The Dolomites were included in the list of the World Heritage Sites unanimously in 2009.

Among the most notable parks in the region, one must include the Parco Nazionale Dolomiti Bellunesi (the only National Park), and several Regional Natural Parks, such as: Dolomiti Ampezzane in Veneto, Paneveggio Pale di San Martino in Trentino and three out of the five parks of South Tyrol: Dolomiti di Sesto/Sextnerdolomiten, Fanes-Sennes-Braies/Fanes-Sennes-Prags and Monte Corno/Trudnerhorn.

Places of Interest

It is is impossible to list them all out here, so it is better to refer to the individual pages, but some of the main resorts in the Dolomites include – among the better known: Cortina d'Ampezzo in the ‘Conca Ampezzana’ (Ampezzo basin), Auronzo di Cadore Misurina in the Val d'Ansiei, Rocca Pietore Marmolada in the Val Pettorina, Selva/Wolkenstein and Ortisei/St. Ulrich in the Val Gardena/Grödnertal, Dobbiaco/Toblach, San Candido/Innichen and Sesto/Sexten in the Alta Val Pusteria/Hochpustertal, Castelrotto/Kastelruth at the foot of the Alpe di Siusi/Seiseralm, Canazei and Moena in the Val di Fassa, Falcade in the Valle del Biois, San Martino di Castrozza in the Primiero (by the Pale di San Martino), Arabba in the Livinallongo, Corvara, La Villa/Stern, San Cassiano/St. Kassian, Badia/Abtei in the Val Badia/Gadertal, Madonna di Campiglio in the Val Rendena, near the Dolomiti di Brenta, and finally Forni di Sopra and Sauris in the Dolomiti Friulane.

Main Peaks

Again, it is impossible to be comprehensive (and more information, as usual, will be found in the individual pages), but these are some of the main peaks (above 3,000 m): Marmolada (Punta Penia, 3,343 m), Antelao (3,264 m), Tofane (Tofana di Mezzo, 3,244 m), Civetta (Monte Civetta, 3,220 m), Cristallo (Monte Cristallo, 3,221 m), Sorapiss (3,205 m), Pale di San Martino (Cima Vezzana, 3,192 m), Sassolungo/Langkofel (3,184 m), Dolomiti di Brenta (Cima Tosa, 3,178 m), Pelmo (3,168 m), Sella (Piz Boè, 3,151 m), Dolomiti di Sesto/Sextnerdolomiten (Punta dei Tre Scarperi, 3,145 m), Conturines (Cima Conturines, 3,064 m), Odle-Puez (Furchetta and Sass Rigais, 3,025 m) and Catinaccio/Rosengarten (Catinaccio d'Antermoia, 3,004 m).

Among those summits under 3,000, but still very relevant, one can include: Tre Cime di Lavaredo (2,999 m), Marmarole (Cimon del Froppa, 2,932 m), Sass de Putia (2,875 m; Odle-Puez group), Cadini di Misurina (Cima Cadin di San Lucano, 2,839 m), Croda da Lago (Cima Ambrizzola, 2,715 m), Sassongher (2,665 m) and Gruppo Cir (Gran Cir, 2,592 m; Odle-Puez group), Torri del Vajolet (Catinaccio group, 2,821 m), Latemar (Torri di Latemar, 2,814 m), Dolomiti Friulane (Cima dei Preti, 2,703 m), Dolomiti di ComelicoCarniche (Monte Cavallino, 2,689 m), Sciliar (Monte Petz, 2,662 m), Nuvolau (Monte Averau, 2,647 m), Bosconero (Sasso di Bosconero, 2,468 m), Col di Lana (2,452 m) with Sett Sass (2,571 m) and Sass de Stria (2,477 m).

In the Dolomiti Bellunesi, which are considered by some as an outlying range outside of the 'proper' Dolomitic region, are the Schiara (Monte Schiara, 2,563 m), the Vette Feltrine (Monte Pavione, 2,334 m) and Cimonega (Sass de Mura, 2,550 m), while in the region of Osttirol (the Austrian section of the Val Pusteria/Pustertal) are the Dolomiti di Lienz/Lienzerdolomiten (Große Sandspitze, 2,770 m).


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