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.

Europe: Physical Geography

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

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

Population Density
188 people per square kilometer

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

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

Largest Urban Area
Moscow, Russia (16.2 million people)

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.

Noun

the distance above sea level.

ancient
Adjective

very old.

Noun

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

Noun

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

Noun

steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.

climate
Noun

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

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.

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

Noun

agricultural produce.

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.

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

economic
Adjective

having to do with money.

endanger
Verb

to put at risk.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

Noun

long, narrow ocean inlet between steep slopes.

forest
Noun

ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

glaciation
Noun

process of a glacier carving out a landscape.

Noun

mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

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.

Noun

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

inlet
Noun

small indentation in a shoreline.

Noun

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

Noun

body of land surrounded by water.

Noun

body of water surrounded by land.

Noun

the geographic features of a region.

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.

Noun

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

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.

Noun

piece of land jutting into a body of water.

physical geography
Noun

study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.

Noun

flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

Noun

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

Noun

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

primate
Noun

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

Noun

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

resource
Noun

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

Noun

large stream of flowing fresh water.

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.

Noun

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

tundra
Noun

cold, treeless region in Arctic and Antarctic climates.

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.

Noun

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