• Europe: Physical Geography

    Europe is the western peninsula of the giant "supercontinent" of Eurasia.

    Map by the National Geographic Society

    Largest Urban Area
    Moscow, Russia (10,456,490 people)

    Highest Elevation
    Mount Elbrus, Russia (5,833 meters/19,137 feet)

    Largest Watershed
    Volga River (1,410,951 square km/544,771 square miles)

    Population Density
    32 people per square kilometer

    Amount of Renewable Electricity Produced
    27% (top producer of renewable energy: Iceland, 99.9%)

    Europe is the second-smallest continent. Only Oceania has less landmass. Europe extends from the island nation of Iceland in the west to the Ural Mountains of Russia in the east. Europes northernmost point is the Svalbard archipelago of Norway, and it reaches as far south as the islands of Greece and Malta.

    Europe is sometimes described as a peninsula of peninsulas. A peninsula is a piece of land surrounded by water on three sides. Europe is a peninsula of the Eurasian supercontinent and is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian Seas to the south.

    Europes main peninsulas are the Iberian, Italian, and Balkan, located in southern Europe, and the Scandinavian and Jutland, located in northern Europe. The link between these peninsulas has made Europe a dominant economic, social, and cultural force throughout recorded history.

    Europes physical geography, environment and resources, and human geography can be considered separately.

    Europe can be divided into four major physical regions, running from north to south: Western Uplands, North European Plain, Central Uplands, and Alpine Mountains.

    Western Uplands

    The Western Uplands, also known as the Northern Highlands, curve up the western edge of Europe and define the physical landscape of Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark), Finland, Iceland, Scotland, Ireland, the Brittany region of France, Spain, and Portugal.

    The Western Uplands is defined by hard, ancient rock that was shaped by glaciation. Glaciation is the process of land being transformed by glaciers or ice sheets. As glaciers receded from the area, they left a number of distinct physical features, including abundant marshlands, lakes, and fjords. A fjord is a long and narrow inlet of the sea that is surrounded by high, rugged cliffs. Many of Europes fjords are located in Iceland and Scandinavia.

    North European Plain

    The North European Plain extends from the southern United Kingdom east to Russia. It includes parts of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), and Belarus.

    Most of the Great European Plain lies below 152 meters (500 feet) in elevation. It is home to many navigable rivers, including the Rhine, Weser, Elbe, Oder, and Vistula. The climate supports a wide variety of seasonal crops. These physical features allowed for early communication, travel, and agricultural development. The North European Plain remains the most densely populated region of Europe.

    Central Uplands

    The Central Uplands extend east-west across central Europe and include western France and Belgium, southern Germany, the Czech Republic, and parts of northern Switzerland and Austria.

    The Central Uplands are lower in altitude and less rugged than the Alpine region and are heavily wooded. Important highlands in this region include the Massif Central and the Vosges in France, the Ardennes of Belgium, the Black Forest and the Taunus in Germany, and the Ore and Sudeten in the Czech Republic. This region is sparsely populated except in the Rhine, Rhne, Elbe, and Danube river valleys.

    Alpine Mountains

    The Alpine Mountains include ranges in the Italian and Balkan peninsulas, northern Spain, and southern France. The region includes the mountains of the Alps, Pyrenees, Apennines, Dinaric Alps, Balkans, and Carpathians.

    High elevations, rugged plateaus, and steeply sloping land define the region. Europes highest peak, Mount Elbrus (5,642 meters/18,510 feet), is in the Caucasus mountains of Russia. The Alpine region also includes active volcanoes, such as Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius in Italy.

    Flora & Fauna

    Much like its physical regions, Europes plant and animal communities follow a general north-south orientation. The tundra, found in Iceland and the northern reaches of Scandinavia and Russia, is a treeless region where small mosses, lichens, and ferns grow. Huge herds of reindeer feed on these tiny plants.

    The taiga, which stretches across northern Europe just south of the tundra, is composed of coniferous forests, with trees such as pine, spruce, and fir. Moose, bear, and elk are native to the European taiga.

    Just south of the taiga is a mixture of coniferous and deciduous trees, including beech, ash, poplar, and willow. Although this area remains heavily forested, the continents forests were drastically reduced as a result of intense urbanization throughout human history. Intense trade introduced many species, which often overtook native plants. The forests and grasslands of western and central Europe have been almost completely domesticated, with crops and livestock dominant.

    Finally, small, drought-resistant plants border the Mediterranean Sea, Europes southern edge. Trees also grow in that southernmost region, including the Aleppo pine, cypress, and cork oak. The only primate native to Europe, the Barbary macaque, inhabits this Mediterranean basin. A small troop of Barbary macaques lives on the tiny island of Gibraltar, between Spain and the African country of Morocco.

    The waters surrounding Europe are home to a number of organisms, including fish, seaweeds, marine mammals, and crustaceans. The cold water surrounding northern Britain and Scandinavia is home to unique species of cold-water corals. All of the major bodies of water in Europe have been fished for centuries. In many places, including the Mediterranean and North seas, waters have been overfished. About a quarter of marine mammals are threatened.

    Today, around 15 percent of Europes animal species are threatened or endangered, mainly by habitat loss, pollution, overexploitation, and competition from invasive species. The European bison, the heaviest land animal on the continent, is one of the most threatened species.

    Beginning in the 20th century, many governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have worked to restore some of Europes rich biodiversity. Establishing fishing limits, protecting threatened habitats, and encouraging sustainable consumption habits are some efforts supported by European conservationists.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    agricultural development Noun

    modern farming methods that include mechanical, chemical, engineering and technological methods. Also called industrial agriculture.

    alpine Adjective

    having to do with mountains.

    altitude Noun

    the distance above sea level.

    Encyclopedic Entry: altitude
    ancient Adjective

    very old.

    archipelago Noun

    a group of closely scattered islands in a large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: archipelago
    biodiversity Noun

    all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity
    cliff Noun

    steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: cliff
    climate Noun

    all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    cold-water coral Noun

    tiny marine animal that thrives in deep, cold water. Also called deep-water coral.

    communication Noun

    sharing of information and ideas.

    coniferous forest Noun

    land covered by trees with thin needles instead of flat leaves.

    conservationist Noun

    person who works to preserve natural habitats.

    consumption Noun

    process of using goods and services.

    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    crop Noun

    agricultural produce.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crop
    crustacean Noun

    type of animal (an arthropod) with a hard shell and segmented body that usually lives in the water.

    deciduous Adjective

    type of plant that sheds its leaves once a year.

    dense Adjective

    having parts or molecules that are packed closely together.

    domesticate Verb

    to tame or adapt for human use.

    drought Noun

    period of greatly reduced precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: drought
    economic Adjective

    having to do with money.

    endanger Verb

    to put at risk.

    environment Noun

    conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

    fjord Noun

    long, narrow ocean inlet between steep slopes.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fjord
    forest Noun

    ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

    glaciation Noun

    process of a glacier carving out a landscape.

    glacier Noun

    mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: glacier
    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    grassland Noun

    ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

    habitat loss Noun

    the reduction or destruction of an ecosystem, making it less able to support its native species.

    human geography Noun

    the study of the way human communities and systems interact with their environment.

    ice sheet Noun

    thick layer of glacial ice that covers a large area of land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ice sheet
    inlet Noun

    small indentation in a shoreline.

    invasive species Noun

    type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area and causes economic or environmental harm.

    Encyclopedic Entry: invasive species
    island Noun

    body of land surrounded by water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: island
    lake Noun

    body of water surrounded by land.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    livestock noun, plural noun

    animals raised for sale and profit.

    marine mammal Noun

    an animal that lives most of its life in the ocean but breathes air and gives birth to live young, such as whales and seals.

    marsh Noun

    wetland area usually covered by a shallow layer of seawater or freshwater.

    Encyclopedic Entry: marsh
    mountain Noun

    landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

    navigable Adjective

    able for vessels to steer through.

    NGO Noun

    non-governmental organization.

    overexploitation Noun

    use or harvesting of a renewable resource to the point where the resource is threatened.

    overfish Verb

    to harvest aquatic life to the point where species become rare in the area.

    peninsula Noun

    piece of land jutting into a body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: peninsula
    physical geography Noun

    study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.

    plain Noun

    flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plain
    plateau Noun

    large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plateau
    pollution Noun

    introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: pollution
    primate Noun

    type of mammal, including humans, apes, and monkeys.

    region Noun

    any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    resource Noun

    available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    Scandinavia Noun

    region and name for some countries in Northern Europe: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.

    seasonal Adjective

    likely to change with the seasons.

    seaweed Noun

    marine algae. Seaweed can be composed of brown, green, or red algae, as well as "blue-green algae," which is actually bacteria.

    sparse Adjective

    scattered and few in number.

    supercontinent Noun

    ancient, giant landmass that split apart to form all the continents we know today.

    sustainable Adjective

    able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

    taiga Noun

    evergreen forest in cool, northern latitudes. Also called boreal forest.

    Encyclopedic Entry: taiga
    tundra Noun

    cold, treeless region in Arctic and Antarctic climates.

    urbanization Noun

    process in which there is an increase in the number of people living and working in a city or metropolitan area.

    valley Noun

    depression in the Earth between hills.

    volcano Noun

    an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

    Encyclopedic Entry: volcano
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