Physical Geography of 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
*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
*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
*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
*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
*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