The Ore Mountains are a Hercynian block tilted so as to present a steep scarp face towards Bohemia and a gentle slope on the German side. They were formed during a lengthy process:
During the folding of the Variscan orogeny, metamorphism occurred deep underground, forming slate and gneiss. In addition, granite plutons intruded into the metamorphic rocks. By the end of the Palaeozoic era, the mountains had been eroded into gently undulating hills (the Permian massif), exposing the hard rocks.
In the Tertiary period these mountain remnants came under heavy pressure as a result of plate tectonic processes during which the Alps were formed and the North American and Eurasian plates were separated. As the rock of the Ore Mountains was too brittle to be folded, it shattered into an independent fault block which was uplifted and tilted to the northwest. This can be very clearly seen at a height of 807 m above sea level (NN) on the mountain of Komáří vížka which lies on the Czech side, east of Zinnwald-Georgenfeld, right on the edge of the fault block.
Consequently, it is a fault-block mountain range which, today has been incised by a whole range of river valleys whose rivers drain southwards into the Eger and northwards into the Mulde or directly into the Elbe. This process is known as dissection.
View from Mückentürmchen in the Eastern Ore Mountains to the west. Left: the escarpment descending to the Eger Graben
; right: the gentle northern dip slope.
The Ore Mountains are geologically considered to be one of the most heavily researched mountain ranges in the world.
The main geologic feature in the Ore Mountains is the Late Paleozoic Eibenstock granite pluton, which is exposed for 25 miles along its northwest-southeast axis and up to 15 miles in width. This pluton is surrounded by progressive zones of contact metamorphism in which Paleozoic slates and phyllites have been changed to spotted hornfels, andalusite hornfels, and quartzites. Two key mineral centers intersect this pluton at Joachimsthal, one trending northwesterly from Schneeberg through Johanngeorgenstadt to Joachimsthal, and a second trending north-south from Freiberg through Marienberg, Annaberg, Niederschlag, Joachimsthal, and Schlaggenwald. Late Tertiary faulting and volcanism gave rise to basalt and phonolite dikes. Ore veins include iron, copper, tin, tungsten, lead, silver, cobalt, bismuth, uranium, plus iron and manganese oxides.
The most important rocks occurring in the Ore Mountains are schist, phyllite and granite with contact metamorphic zones in the west, basalt as remnants in the Plešivec (Pleßberg), Scheibenberg, Bärenstein, Pöhlberg, Velký Špičák (Großer Spitzberg or Schmiedeberger Spitzberg), Jelení hora (Haßberg) and Geisingberg as well as gneisses and rhyolite (Kahleberg) in the east. The soils consist of rapidly leaching grus. In the western and central areas of the mountains it is formed from weathered granite. Phyllite results in a loamy, rapidly weathered gneiss in the east of the mountains producing a light soil. As a result of the subsoils based on granite and rhyolite, the land is mostly covered in forest; on the gneiss soils it was possible to grow and cultivate flax in earlier centuries and, later, rye, oats and potatoes up to the highlands. Today the land is predominantly used for pasture. But it is not uncommon to see near-natural mountain meadows.
To the north of the Ore Mountains, west of Chemnitz and around Zwickau lies the Ore Mountain Basin which is only really known geologically. Here there are deposits of stone coal where mining has already been abandoned. A similar but smaller basin with abandoned coal deposits, the Döhlen Basin, is located southwest of Dresden on the northern edge of the Ore Mountains. It forms the transition to the Elbe Valley zone.
The western part of the Ore Mountains is home to the two highest peaks of the range: Klínovec, located in the Czech part, with an altitude of 1,244 metres (4,081 ft) and Fichtelberg, the highest mountain of Saxony, Germany, at 1,214 metres (3,983 ft). The Ore Mountains are part of a larger mountain system and adjoin the Fichtel Mountains to the west and the Elbe Sandstone Mountains to the east. Past the River Elbe, the mountain chain continues as the Lusatian Mountains. While the mountains slope gently away in the northern (German) part, the southern (Czech) slopes are rather steep.
The Ore Mountains and adjacent regions
View of Breitenbrunn
in the Ore Mountains, from Joachimsthaler Strasse
The Ore Mountains are oriented in a southwest-northeast direction and are about 150 km long and, on average, about 40 km wide. From a geomorphological perspective the range is divided into the Western, Central and Eastern Ore Mountains, separated by the valleys of the Schwarzwasser and Zwickauer Mulde and the Flöha ("Flöha Line"), the division of the western section along the River Schwarzwasser is of a more recent date. The Eastern Ore Mountains mainly comprise large, gently climbing plateaux, in contrast with the steeper and higher-lying western and central areas, and are dissected by river valleys that frequently change direction. The crest of the mountains themselves forms, in all three regions, a succession of plateaux and individual peaks.
To the east it is adjoined by the Elbe Sandstone Mountains and, to the west, by the Elster Mountains and other Saxon parts of the Vogtland. South(east) of the Central and Eastern Ore Mountains lies the North Bohemian Basin and, immediately east of that, the Bohemian Central Uplands which are separated from the Eastern Ore Mountains by narrow fingers of the aforementioned basin. South(east) of the Western Ore Mountains lie the Sokolov Basin, the Eger Graben and the Doupov Mountains. To the north the boundary is less sharply defined because the Ore Mountains, a typical example of a fault-block, descend very gradually.
The topographical transition from the Western and Central Ore Mountains to the loess hill country to the north between Zwickau and Chemnitz is referred to as the Ore Mountain Basin; that from the Eastern Ore Mountains as the Ore Mountain Foreland. Between Freital and Pirna, the area is called the Dresden Ore Mountain Foreland (Dresdner Erzgebirgsvorland) or Bannewitz-Possendorf-Burkhardswald Plateau (Bannewitz-Possendorf-Burkhardswalder Plateau). Geologically the Ore Mountains reach the city limits of Dresden at the Windberg hill near Freital and the Karsdorf Fault. The V-shaped valleys of the Ore Mountains break through this fault and the shoulder of the Dresden Basin.
The Ore Mountains belong to the Bohemian Massif within Europe's Central Uplands, a massif that also includes the Upper Palatine Forest, the Bohemian Forest, the Bavarian Forest, the Lusatian Mountains, the Iser Mountains, the Giant Mountains and the Inner-Bohemian Mountains. At the same time it forms a y-shaped mountain chain, along with the Upper Palatine Forest, Bohemian Forest, Fichtel Mountains, Franconian Forest, Thuringian Slate Mountains and Thuringian Forest, that has no unique name but is characterised by a rather homogeneous climate.
According to cultural tradition, Zwickau is seen historically as part of the Ore Mountains, Chemnitz is seen historically as just lying outside them, but Freiberg is included. The supposed limit of the Ore Mountains continues southwest of Dresden towards the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. From this perspective, its main characteristics, i.e., gently sloping plateaus climbing up to the ridgeline incised by V-shaped valleys, continue to the southern edge of the Dresden Basin. North of the Ore Mountains the landscape gradually transitions into the Saxon Lowland and Saxon Elbeland. Its cultural-geographical transition to Saxon Switzerland in the area of the Müglitz and Gottleuba valleys is not sharply defined.
The highest mountain in the Ore Mountains is the Klínovec (German: Keilberg), at 1,244 metres, in the Bohemian part of the range. The highest elevation on the Saxon side is the 1,215-metre-high Fichtelberg, which was the highest mountain in East Germany. The Ore Mountains contain about thirty summits with a height over 1,000 m above sea level (NN), but not all are clearly defined mountains. Most of them occur around the Klínovec and the Fichtelberg. About a third of them are located on the Saxon side of the border.
See: List of mountains in the Ore Mountains
From west to east:
Natural regions in the Saxon Ore Mountains
The natural regions on the Saxon side of the Ore Mountains
In the division of Germany into natural regions that was carried out Germany-wide in the 1950s the Ore Mountains formed major unit group 42:
- 42 Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge)
- 420 Southern slopes of the Ore Mountains (Südabdachung des Erzgebirges)
- 421 Upper Western Ore Mountains (Oberes Westerzgebirge)
- 422 Upper Eastern Ore Mountains (Oberes Osterzgebirge)
- 423 Lower Western Ore Mountains (Unteres Westerzgebirge)
- 424 Lower Eastern Ore Mountains (Unteres Osterzgebirge)
Even after the reclassification of natural regions by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation in 1994 the Ore Mountains, region D16, remained a major unit group with almost unchanged boundaries. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, the working group Naturhaushalt und Gebietscharakter of the Saxon Academy of Sciences (Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften) in Leipzig merged the Ore Mountains with the major unit group of Vogtland to the west and the major landscape units of Saxon Switzerland, Lusatian Highlands and Zittau Mountains to the east into one overarching unit, the Saxon Highlands and Uplands. In addition, its internal divisions were changed. Former major unit 420 was grouped with the western part of major units 421 and 423 to form a new major unit, the Western Ore Mountains (Westerzgebirge), the eastern part of major units 421 and 423 became the Central Ore Mountains (Mittelerzgebirge) and major units 422 and 424 became the Eastern Ore Mountains (Osterzgebirge).
The current division therefore looks as follows:
The geographic unit of the Southern Slopes of the Ore Mountains remains unchanged under the title of Southern Ore Mountains (Süderzgebirge).
The climate of the higher regions of the Ore Mountains is characterised as distinctly harsh. Temperatures are considerably lower all year round than in the lowlands, and the summer is noticeably shorter and cool days are frequent. The average annual temperatures only reach values of 3 to 5 °C. In Oberwiesenthal, at a height of 922 m above sea level (NN), on average only about 140 frost-free days per year are observed. Based on reports of earlier chroniclers, the climate of the upper Ore Mountains in past centuries must have been even harsher than it is today. Historic sources describe hard winters in which cattle froze to death in their stables, and occasionally houses and cellars were snowed in even after snowfalls in April. The population was regularly cut off from the outside world. The upper Ore Mountains was therefore nicknamed Saxon Siberia already in the 18th century.
The fault block mountain range that climbs from northwest to southeast, and which enables prolonged rain to fall as orographic rain when weather systems drive in from the west and northwest, gives rise to twice as much precipitation as in the lowlands which exceeds 1,100 mm on the upper reaches of the mountains. Since a large part of the precipitation falls as snow, in many years a thick and permanent layer of snow remains until April. The ridges of the Ore Mountains are one of the snowiest areas in the German Central Uplands. Foehn winds, and also the so-called Bohemian Wind may occur during certain specific southerly weather conditions.
As a result of the climate and the heavy amounts of snow a natural Dwarf Mountain Pine region is found near Satzung, near the border to Bohemia at just under 900 m above sea level (NN). By comparison, in the Alps these pines do not occur until 1,600 to 1,800 m above sea level (NN).
Climatic diagram of Annaberg-Buchholz
Climatic diagram of Freiberg
Climatic diagram of the Fichtelberg
Climatic diagram of Zinnwald-Georgenfeld