Europe: Physical Geography

Europe: Physical Geography

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


6 - 12+


Biology, Ecology, Earth Science, Geology, Geography, Physical Geography

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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. Europe's 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.

Europe's 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.

Europe's 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 Europe's 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 Czechia, 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 Czechia. 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. Europe's highest peak, Mount Elbrus at 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 and Fauna
Much like its physical regions, Europe's 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 (Rangifer tarandus) 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 (Alces alces), bear, and elk (Cervus canadensis) 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 continent's 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, Europe's southern edge. Trees also grow in that southernmost region, including the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis), cypress, and cork oak (Quercus suber). The only primate native to Europe, the Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus), 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 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 Europe's animal species are threatened or endangered, mainly by habitat loss, pollution, overexploitation, and competition from invasive species. The European bison (Bison bonasus), the heaviest land animal on the continent, is one of the most threatened species.

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

Fast Fact

Population Density
188 people per square kilometer

Fast Fact

Highest Elevation
Mount Elbrus, Russia (5,642 meters/18,510 feet)

Fast Fact

Most Renewable Electricity Produced
Iceland (99.9%: hydropower, geothermal)

Fast Fact

Largest Urban Area
Moscow, Russia (16.2 million people)

Fast Fact

Largest Watershed
Volga River (1.38 million square km/532,821 square miles)

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Diane Boudreau
Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Andrew Turgeon
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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