HONOURS GEOGRAPHY
Physical Geography of Europe

*Europe is the second smallest continent in area (4,140,625 square miles), larger only than Australia—that is, if Europe is even considered a continent at all.  Some people (including many geographers in Russia) class it as part of a larger continent, Eurasia.

*If Europe is a continent (or even if it is merely a peninsula or Eurasia), it is typically considered to start at the Ural Mountains in Russia and the Caucasus Mountains just north of Turkey.  It is also surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Black Sea, all of which also have smaller seas and bays within them.

*Europe is classed as a continent as much for historical and cultural reasons as for geographical ones—Europe has had a tremendous impact on world history and culture, and continues to be culturally, politically, and economically significant:  the population of Europe is roughly 700,000,000, about 11% of the world's population.

*In addition to the 43 nations of Europe that the textbook describes, we will also look at Russia, the largest single nation on the planet, which has its heart in Europe, but most of its territory in Asia.  It covers 6.6 million square miles, and required 11 time zones.

*Look at page 273.

*Since Europe is arguably a peninsula, almost any point in Europe lies relatively close to the ocean—300 miles or less in most cases.  As a consequence, Europeans have always used the seas, and in some cases, fought with them.

*The Netherlands (meaning lowlands) are famous for reclaiming lands (called polders) from the sea, by building dikes and draining the lands behind them.  About 25% of the Netherlands is below sea level, and, despite the best efforts of the Dutch, they occasionally suffer serious floods.

*Europe also has several major peninsulas jutting out from the continent.  The Iberian Peninsula holds Spain and Portugal, and is cut off from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees Mountains.  The Apennine Peninsula (named after the Apennine Mountains), also known as the Italian Peninsula, holds most of Italy.  South-eastern Europe fits onto the Balkan Peninsula, which holds Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, and the other Balkan nations.  The Scandinavian Peninsula, of course, has the Scandinavian nations of Norway and Sweden, and the Jutland Peninsula holds Denmark.  These peninsulas are characterised by fjords, long, narrow inlets carved by glaciers.

*Even more tied to the sea than Europe’s peninsulas are her islands.  Iceland, in the North Atlantic, is a volcanic island, where most of the nation’s heat still comes from steam piped in from volcanoes.  The British Isles—Ireland and Great Britain—are among the largest and most important islands in the world:  Great Britain is the world’s 8th largest island, the largest island in Europe (covering 84,400 square miles), and the home of one of the world’s most influential nations.  The Mediterranean is full of islands, many of them volcanic in origin, and some of them the home of independent nations such as Cyprus and Malta.

*Europe also has several important mountain ranges.  Although none are as high as the Himalayas or as long as the Andes, they have served to separate Europe into different countries throughout history, creating incredibly diverse cultures and the highest concentration of highly developed nations in the world, in part because the separate countries of Europe grew strong while competing against one another.

*The Alps are the major range of Central Europe, and we can see that they have been important most of recorded history by the fact that Alps simply means ‘mountains.’  The highest mountain in the Alps is Mont Blanc on the Franco-Italian border; it is 15,780 feet high.  They Alps run from southern France into Slovenia, and are typically seen as the division between Southern Europe and the rest of the continent.  Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Austria are entirely (or almost entirely) in the Alps.

*Other major ranges include the Pennines, in Britain (with Ben Nevis, at 4,406 feet, their highest point), the Scandinavian Mountains in Scandinavia, the Pyrenees which separate Spain from France, the Apennines of Italy, the Balkan Mountains of the Balkan Peninsula, and the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe.

*In Russia, the Ural Mountains are often seen as the eastern border of Europe, and, though they are not a high chain, they are fairly long.  The Caucasus mountains are seen as another boundary of Europe, and they are also in or near Russia, although they also have a number of independent countries (and countries that wish to be independent) in their valleys.  They are also very steep, and Europe’s highest mountain is found there:  Mount Elbrus is 18,510 feet high.

*In addition to the mountains of Europe, there are a few other highland regions, notably the Meseta of Spain and the Massif Central of France.

*Europe also has some notable flatlands, particularly the North European Plain, which stretches from Germany into Russia.  It is both a fertile agricultural region and an area that historically had important deposits of metals, so that many industrial cities grew up there in the 1800s.  Another fertile area is the Great Hungarian Plain, flowing the Danube River from Hungary down to the Black Sea.

*Europe has a number of important rivers.  The Thames, in England, in deep and wide, and allows ocean-going ships to sail up to London.  The Rhine flows from the Swiss Alps through France, Germany, and the Netherlands, allowing trade through those nations; many of their industrial cities are along the Rhine.  The Danube is Eastern Europe’s major waterway, flowing through many of the capital cities of Central and Eastern Europe, and emptying into the Black Sea.  In 1992, the Main River was connected to the Danube by the Main-Danube Canal, which now allows uninterrupted water transit from the North Sea to the Black Sea. 

*Other important rivers include the Po in Italy, the Loire and the Seine in France, the Elbe in Germany, the Vistula in Poland, and the Dneiper in Ukraine.

*Look at page 347.

*Russia’s major mountain ranges, as already mentioned, are the Urals and the Caucasus, but it also has several mountain ranges in the east, particularly along its border with Mongolia and China.  It also has a major plateau, the Central Siberian Plateau.

*Siberia is the name of a vast region in Asian Russia, that is, of the most part, cold, desolate, and sparsely populated.

*Although Russia touches the Arctic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and (through the Baltic Sea) the Atlantic Ocean, it has difficulty maintaining warm-water ports that will not freeze in the winter.  For this reason, its ports on the Black Sea remain very important, even though the Black Sea’s outlet to the Mediterranean is controlled by Turkey.

*Russia also touches two vast inland lakes.  The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest lake (covering 143,000 sq. miles), and is known as a sea because, as an inland lake, it collects salt and other minerals, so that it is highly saline.  Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest freshwater lake (over one mile deep).

*Although Russia’s Asian rivers are very long, they are not nearly as important to the people and economy of Russia as the European rivers of the Volga, and the Don, which lie at the heart of Russia’s agricultural region.  They are also important for fishing, especially the Volga, the major source of sturgeon and their eggs (known as caviar).

*Look at page 278.

*In terms of climate, most of Western Europe is warmed by the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift, creating a marine west coast climate much warmer and more pleasant that would be expected of a place with such high latitude.

*Most of Southern Europe has a Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters.  Indeed, the Mediterranean climate region takes its name from this area, mostly around the Mediterranean Sea.  This area grows olives and cork trees, and often has shrubby chaparral vegetation.

*Eastern and Northern Europe have mostly humid continental climates, like the Northern USA and Canada, and eventually give way to subarctic and tundra regions.

*Look at page 352 and 353.

*Most of central western Russia is humid continental, but most of Siberia is subarctic, suitable primarily for coniferous forests.  Consequently this is a sparsely populated



This page last updated 19 September, 2005.