Europe is the second-smallest continent. However, its strategic position in relation to Asia and Africa, as well as navigable rivers and fertile soil, have 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’s rich agricultural and industrial diversity has made the continent a center of trade and commerce for centuries. It is centrally located between the two other “Old World” continents, Africa and Asia. This tradition of exchange prompted the early and rapid urbanization of the continent, recognizable in many dynamic cities that make up most of Europe.
Climate and Agriculture
Europe enjoys a mild and temperate climate. Unique wind patterns and ocean currents keep Europe warmer than other landmasses at similar latitudes. Most of Europe lies north of New York City, for instance, but few European countries experience the cold winters familiar to the New England region of the United States. This mild climate allows Europe to produce a variety of agricultural products.
Strong westerly winds bring mild maritime air from the Atlantic during the winters and summers. These strong winds prevent cold Arctic air from penetrating the interior of the continent most of the time. As such, Europe maintains steady temperatures throughout the year. The ocean current known as the North Atlantic Drift brings warm water from the tropical Atlantic toward the continent. This water further warms westerly winds and air masses, providing Europe with much of its precipitation.
Europe’s climate falls under two categories: marine west coast and Mediterranean. Each of these climates supports a variety of agricultural products. The marine west coast climate covers much of northwestern Europe except for Scandinavia and the mountainous regions of Eastern Germany, Poland, and Switzerland. Mild summer and winter temperatures and consistent rainfall and cloud cover characterize this climate. Principal crops include wheat, rapeseed, and potatoes. Livestock, such as sheep and cattle, are an import source of meat, dairy, and wool products. Some of the world’s finest cheeses come from this climatic region.
The Mediterranean climate covers the majority of Southern Europe, including Spain, Portugal, southern France, southern Italy, and Greece. Hot, nearly rainless summers and mild, rainy winters characterize this climate. Olives and grapes are two important crops that have thrived in this climate for more than a thousand years. Spain, Italy, and Greece are the top three producers of olives in the world. France, Italy, and Spain are the top three world producers of grapes used for wine.
Forestry and Fishing
Forestry, the management of trees and other vegetation in forests, is an important industry in Europe. Forest industries produce more than $600 billion every year. Forestry and timber industries employ 3.7 million people, and account for 9 percent of Europe’s manufacturing gross domestic product (GDP).
Europe’s most important forest industries are woodworking, paper products, and construction and furniture products. The continent is a prominent exporter of value-added forest products, which are finished goods made from raw materials. Europe’s value-added forest products include quality papers, furniture, and wood-based panels.
Europe also has a thriving non-wood forestry sector, which includes mushroom and truffle gathering, fruit and berry collection, and cultivation of medicinal plants, honey, and cork. Europe accounts for 80 percent of total cork production worldwide.
Europe represents roughly 5 percent of global fisheries and aquaculture production. Wild catches are taken primarily in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Important catches include Atlantic herring, sprat, blue whiting, and Atlantic mackerel. Leading fishing countries are Spain, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and France. Together, these nations account for about half of all of Europe’s fish catches.
Aquaculture is also a major activity in Europe. Aquaculture is the farming of freshwater and marine species in controlled environments. Aquaculture represents roughly 20 percent of Europe’s fishery production. Important aquaculture species are Mediterranean mussel, rainbow trout, Atlantic salmon, and European sea bass.
European fish production has decreased every year for the last 20 years. In many areas, the fisheries are threatened. The Mediterranean and Adriatic seas supported a strong tuna fishery for centuries. Today, many in the fishing industry worry that bluefin tuna may become extinct in the Mediterranean by 2050. Nonprofit organizations are pressuring the European Union to reduce fishing capacity, promote responsible consumption, and invest in the enforcement of quotas and sustainable practices.
Mining and Drilling
While Europe is home to some of the world’s largest mining companies, it is not a major producer of metals. Certain countries, however, are major producers of particular metals, such as chromium in Turkey, titanium in Norway, and silver in Poland. The continent’s top five metals in terms of percentage of total world production are: chromium (10.7 percent in 2008), used in stainless steel, dyes, and pigments; silver (8.5 percent); zinc (7.7 percent), used as an anti-corrosion agent; lead (7.5 percent); and titanium (7.1 percent), used in aircraft, armor plating, naval ships, and spacecraft.
Europe also produces a number of minerals used in industrial applications. The European Union, a group of 27 countries, is either the largest or second-largest world producer of feldspar, used in the production of ceramics and for archaeological dating processes; kaolin, used in ceramics, medicine, toothpaste, and cosmetics; magnesite, used in steelmaking and rubber production; perlite, used in plasters, insulation, and ceiling tiles; and salt.
Europe has limited deposits of oil and natural gas, which are drilled for energy and fuel. Russia has some of the largest oil deposits on the planet, although most of them are in the remote Asian part of the country. Russia is also the world’s largest exporter of natural gas. Norway has significant oil deposits, and is the world’s second-largest exporter of natural gas. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are Europe’s other major producers of natural gas. The United Kingdom’s offshore facilities in the North Sea are Europe’s second-largest producer of oil.
Offshore exploration and drilling are expected to increase as onshore reserves become depleted and technological advancements make offshore practices easier. This will be especially important for Europe’s energy future, which relies on imports for at least half of its gas needs. To offset the reliance on imported oil, many European countries are investing in sustainable energy sources, such as solar energy, wind energy, tidal energy, and nuclear energy.
The Built Environment
As a result of its high level of human and economic development, Europe is a complex and mostly urban continent. Urban areas have developed unique economic and cultural significance that reflect both their local geographies and the broader European community. Three urban areas that demonstrate this are Frankfurt, Germany; The Hague, Netherlands; and Tallinn, Estonia.
Frankfurt, Germany, has an estimated population of 2,295,000 and is an international center of commerce, finance, and transport. Frankfurt’s central European location has promoted an extensive transportation infrastructure of air, rail, and road options. Frankfurt is a hub of European travel.
Frankfurt is also a banking and commerce hub, housing the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, the European Central Bank, and the German Federal Bank, along with more than 300 national and international bank headquarters. It also hosts a number of important trade fairs, including the world’s largest motor show, book fair, and music fair.
The Hague, Netherlands, has a population of about 629,000 and is known as the “International City of Peace and Justice” and the “Second UN City.” (New York is the first.) The Hague is home to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), two important institutions of the United Nations. The ICC tries people accused of “crimes against humanity,” such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is similar to the International Criminal Court, but limited to crimes surrounding the wars of the 1990s in the Balkan Peninsula.
The Hague is also home to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), founded in 1899. The PCA is the oldest institution for international dispute resolution. One of the city’s most well-known buildings is the Peace Palace, nicknamed the “seat of international law.” The Peace Palace houses the ICJ and PCA.
Tallinn, Estonia, has an estimated population of 413,000 and is developing into a European center of information technology. The city is home to the software developers at Skype, known for its influential internet voice-call program, and Kazaa, a popular music file-sharing system. Scholars believe Tallinn’s 50-year-old Institute of Cybernetics led to the city’s early adoption of internet-based technologies.
Estonia’s booming technology industry makes it one of the most economically dynamic countries in Europe. Foreign investors regularly visit Tallinn, and the city was recognized as a European Capital of Culture in 2011.
Europe has a number of state-of-the-art engineering marvels addressing the region’s concern with energy, transportation and communication, and development. The Langeled pipeline, completed in October 2007, is the world’s largest underwater pipeline. It brings Norwegian natural gas to the United Kingdom. The pipeline runs approximately 1,167 kilometers (725 miles) through the North Sea, beginning at the Ormen Lange Gas Process Terminal in Norway and ending at the Easington Gas Terminal in England. The pipeline also has a connector that could expand the network even further and throughout mainland Europe.
The Millau Viaduct, completed in December 2004, is the tallest bridge in the world. It is part of a highway that unites Paris and Montpellier, France. The bridge connects two plateaus that are divided by a deep river valley. It carries four lanes of traffic 270 meters (886 feet) above the valley. The bridge is more than 2,460 meters (8,000 feet) long, and its highest supporting mast reaches 343 meters (1,125 feet)—taller than the Eiffel Tower. In 2006, the Millau Viaduct received the Outstanding Structure Award from the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering for its innovative design and advancement of bridge construction technologies.
The Venice Tide Barrier Project, expected to be complete in 2014, will protect the coastal city of Venice, Italy, from destructive high tides that have threatened the city for hundreds of years. The project will consist of 78 giant steel panels across the three inlets that allow water to surge from the Adriatic Sea into Venice’s lagoon. Each panel, weighing 272 metric tons (300 tons) and measuring 28 meters (92 feet) wide by 20 meters (65 feet) high, will be fixed to concrete bases dug into the seabed. When a high tide is predicted, the hollow panels will be filled with compressed air, forcing them to rise and form a barrier to the incoming waves. The project, however, has been the source of political feuding and environmental concerns.
Largest Urban Area
Moscow, Russia (16.2 million people)
Mount Elbrus, Russia (5,642 meters/18,510 feet)
Volga River (1.38 million square km/532,821 square miles)
188 people per square kilometer
Most Renewable Electricity Produced
Iceland (99.9%; hydropower, geothermal)
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry aquaculture Noun
the art and science of cultivating marine or freshwater life for food and industry.
having to do with the study of ancient people and cultures.
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate cloud cover Noun
amount of sky covered with clouds.
trade, or the exchange of goods and services.
process of using goods and services.
one of the seven main land masses on Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: continent corrosion Noun
process of chemicals breaking down or wearing away a material.
crimes against humanity Noun
severe acts of violence supported directly or indirectly by the government or other authority, usually against groups of people.
Encyclopedic Entry: crop cultivate Verb
to prepare and nurture the land for crops.
having to do with the production of milk, cream, butter, or cheese.
having to do with money.
the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.
conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.
ethnic cleansing Noun
policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.
European Union Noun
association of European nations promoting free trade, ease of transportation, and cultural and political links.
no longer existing.
able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.
to argue or engage in hostilities, especially over long periods of time.
to fund or provide money to an organization or individual, usually for a specific purpose.
finished good Noun
item assembled and ready for sale.
industry or occupation of harvesting fish, either in the wild or through aquaculture.
fishing capacity Noun
relationship between a fishery and the way fish are managed there, including the number of fish harvested, methods used, and sustainability for future generations of fishermen and consumers.
management, cultivation, and harvesting of trees and other vegetation in forests.
water that is not salty.
material that provides power or energy.
intentional mass murder of a specific religious, cultural, or ethnic group.
gross domestic product (GDP) Noun
value of the goods and services produced by a single country during a single year.
place where an organization or project is chiefly located.
high tide Noun
water level that has risen as a result of the moon's gravitational pull on the Earth.
human geography Noun
the study of the way human communities and systems interact with their environment.
good traded from another area.
having to do with factories or mechanical production.
information technology Noun
development and maintenance of computer software and hardware systems.
small indentation in a shoreline.
new, advanced, or original.
material used to keep an object warm.
to contribute time or money.
shallow body of water that may have an opening to a larger body of water, but is also protected from it by a sandbar or coral reef.
Encyclopedic Entry: lagoon latitude Noun
distance north or south of the Equator, measured in degrees.
Encyclopedic Entry: latitude livestock noun, plural noun
animals raised for sale and profit.
having to do with the ocean.
marine west coast climate Noun
(mild climate) region that experiences rain and long, cool winters.
having to do with the ocean.
medicinal plant Noun
plant used to cure or comfort people or animals suffering from disease.
Mediterranean climate Noun
(mild climate) region that experiences mild winters and warm summers.
process of extracting ore from the Earth.
natural gas Noun
type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.
Encyclopedic Entry: natural gas navigable Adjective
able for vessels to steer through.
New England Noun
area in the United States comprising the states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
nonprofit organization Noun
business that uses surplus funds to pursue its goals, not to make money.
nuclear energy Noun
energy released by reactions among the nuclei of atoms.
Encyclopedic Entry: nuclear energy offshore Adjective
having to do with facilities or resources located underwater, usually miles from the coast.
fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.
Old World Noun
the Eastern Hemisphere, especially Europe, Asia, and Africa.
physical geography Noun
study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.
large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.
Encyclopedic Entry: plateau precipitation Noun
all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.
Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation quota Noun
percentage or part of a total amount.
amount of precipitation that falls in a specific area during a specific time.
raw material Noun
matter that needs to be processed into a product to use or sell.
available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.
river valley Noun
depression in the earth caused by a river eroding the surrounding soil.
electronic programs of code that tell computers what to do.
top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.
solar energy Noun
radiation from the sun.
Encyclopedic Entry: solar energy spacecraft Noun
vehicle designed for travel outside Earth's atmosphere.
stainless steel Noun
metal that is very resistant to rust.
important part of a place or plan.
surge noun, verb
sudden, strong movement forward.
able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.
to scare or be a source of danger.
tidal energy Noun
energy produced as ocean waters surge in and out with tides.
Encyclopedic Entry: tidal energy trade Noun
buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.
to move material from one place to another.
existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.
valuable, edible underground fungus, related to a mushroom.
one of a kind.
United Nations Noun
international organization that works for peace, security and cooperation.
process in which there is an increase in the number of people living and working in a city or metropolitan area.
all the plant life of a specific place.
wind energy Noun
kinetic energy produced by the movement of air, able to be converted to mechanical power.
thick, soft hair of some animals, such as sheep.