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.
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.
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.
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.
Most Renewable Electricity Produced
Iceland (99.9%; hydropower, geothermal)
188 people per square kilometer
Volga River (1.38 million square km/532,821 square miles)
Mount Elbrus, Russia (5,642 meters/18,510 feet)
Largest Urban Area
Moscow, Russia (16.2 million people)
modern farming methods that include mechanical, chemical, engineering and technological methods. Also called industrial agriculture.
having to do with mountains.
the distance above sea level.
a group of closely scattered islands in a large body of water.
all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.
steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
tiny marine animal that thrives in deep, cold water. Also called deep-water coral.
sharing of information and ideas.
land covered by trees with thin needles instead of flat leaves.
person who works to preserve natural habitats.
process of using goods and services.
one of the seven main land masses on Earth.
type of animal (an arthropod) with a hard shell and segmented body that usually lives in the water.
type of plant that sheds its leaves once a year.
having parts or molecules that are packed closely together.
to tame or adapt for human use.
period of greatly reduced precipitation.
having to do with money.
to put at risk.
conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.
long, narrow ocean inlet between steep slopes.
ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.
process of a glacier carving out a landscape.
mass of ice that moves slowly over land.
system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.
ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.
the reduction or destruction of an ecosystem, making it less able to support its native species.
the study of the way human communities and systems interact with their environment.
thick layer of glacial ice that covers a large area of land.
small indentation in a shoreline.
type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area and causes economic or environmental harm.
body of land surrounded by water.
body of water surrounded by land.
the geographic features of a region.
noun, plural noun
animals raised for sale and profit.
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.
wetland area usually covered by a shallow layer of seawater or freshwater.
landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.
able for vessels to steer through.
use or harvesting of a renewable resource to the point where the resource is threatened.
to harvest aquatic life to the point where species become rare in the area.
piece of land jutting into a body of water.
study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.
flat, smooth area at a low elevation.
large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.
introduction of harmful materials into the environment.
type of mammal, including humans, apes, and monkeys.
any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.
available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.
large stream of flowing fresh water.
region and name for some countries in Northern Europe: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.
likely to change with the seasons.
marine algae. Seaweed can be composed of brown, green, or red algae, as well as "blue-green algae," which is actually bacteria.
scattered and few in number.
ancient, giant landmass that split apart to form all the continents we know today.
able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.
evergreen forest in cool, northern latitudes. Also called boreal forest.
cold, treeless region in Arctic and Antarctic climates.
process in which there is an increase in the number of people living and working in a city or metropolitan area.
depression in the Earth between hills.
an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.