Chapter 6: Europe

European physical geography and political boundaries
European physical geography and political boundaries

Europe? Where’s that? It might seem like a relatively easy question to answer, but looking at the map, the boundaries of Europe are harder to define than it might seem. Traditionally, the continent of “Europe” referred to the western extremity of the landmass known as Eurasia. Eurasia is a massive tectonic plate, so determining where exactly Europe ends and Asia begins is difficult.

National Geographic Kids: Europe | Destination World

The traditional boundaries of the European continent include the North Atlantic Ocean to the west and Russia up to the Ural Mountains to the east. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russia has been given its own identification and, in this text, is not included in the study of Europe.

Greenland is located next to the North American country of Canada but has traditionally been considered a part of Europe because of Denmark’s colonial acquisition of the island. Greenland is physically more a part of North America. The Arctic Ocean creates a natural boundary to the north. The southern boundary of Europe is the Mediterranean Sea and includes the islands of Malta and Cyprus as independent countries.

Mediterranean Sea
Mediterranean Sea

A portion of Turkey is in Europe, but Turkey is considered a part of Asia Minor and is usually included in the study of the Middle East region. The waterway in Turkey between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea is the Bosporus, or the Istanbul Strait, which creates a natural border between Asia and Europe. Europe is also close to North Africa, and Morocco’s coast can be seen across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain.

The Strait of Gibraltar as seen from a plane
The Strait of Gibraltar as seen from a plane
The Strait of Gibraltar as seen from land
The Strait of Gibraltar as seen from land

In addition to the Ural Mountains, Europe has several other mountain ranges, most of which are in the southern portion of the continent. The Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Carpathians divide Europe’s southern Alpine region from the hilly central uplands. Northern Europe is characterized by lowlands and is relatively flat. Europe’s western highlands include the Scandinavian Mountains of Norway and Sweden as well as the Scottish Highlands.

Europe's mountains, main rivers, seas, and plains
Europe’s mountains, main rivers, seas, and plains

Europe has a large number of navigable waterways, and most places in Europe are relatively short distances from the sea. This has contributed to numerous historical trading links across the region and allowed for Europe to dominate maritime travel.

The Danube flows through 10 European countries.
The Danube flows through 10 European countries.

The Danube, sometimes referred to as the “Blue Danube” after a famous Austrian waltz of the same name, is the European region’s largest river and winds its way along 2,860 km (1,780 mi) and 10 countries from Germany to Ukraine.

Optional video/song: Strauss ~ The Blue Danube Waltz

This proximity to water also affects Europe’s climate. While you might imagine much of Europe to be quite cold given its high latitudinal position, the region is surprisingly temperate. The Gulf Stream brings warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean to Europe’s coastal region and warms the winds that blow across the continent. Amsterdam, for example, lies just above the 52°N line of latitude, around the same latitudinal position as Saskatoon, in Canada’s central Saskatchewan province. Yet Amsterdam’s average low in January, its coldest month, is around 0.8°C (33.4°F) while Saskatoon’s average low in January is -20.7°C (-5.3°F)!

In a Nutshell: The Gulf Stream Explained

Most of Western Europe has a moderate type C climate. The Gulf Stream originates in the Gulf of Mexico, where the waters are warmed. This powerful current follows the Eastern Seaboard of the United States before crossing the Atlantic Ocean for Europe. The Gulf Stream’s most dramatic effect can be found in the western coastal islands of Scotland, which has a mild enough climate to support some forms of tropical flora, even though it is a degree of latitude as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada.

Europe’s climate is influenced by the Gulf Stream. That effect doesn’t reach the interior portions of Europe, as seen by this climate map.

The coast of Norway provides another example. While most of Norway’s coastal area lies within the Arctic region, it remains free of ice and snow throughout the winter. People living farther inland and closer to Eastern Europe and Russia encounter the colder type D climates. Colder air sweeps down from the Arctic north or from eastern Siberia and provides colder winters in this eastern region. 

While geographers can discuss Europe’s absolute location and the specific features of its physical environment, we can also consider Europe’s relative location. That is, its location relative to other parts of the world. Europe lies at the heart of what’s known as the land hemisphere. If you tipped a globe on its side and split it so that half of the world had most of the land and half had most of the water, Europe would be at the center of this land hemisphere.

This, combined with the presence of numerous navigable waterways, allowed for maximum contact between Europe and the rest of the world. Furthermore, distances between countries in Europe are relatively small. Paris, France, for example, is just over a two-hour high-speed rail trip from London, England.

This relative location provided efficient travel times between Europe and the rest of the world, which contributed to Europe’s historical dominance. When we consider globalization, the scale of the world is shrinking as the world’s people are becoming more interconnected. For Europe, however, the region’s peoples have long been interconnected with overlapping histories, physical features, and resources.

Europe's four main landforms
Europe’s four main landforms

Europe has four main landforms, many islands and peninsulas, and various climate types. The four main landforms include the Alpine regionCentral UplandsNorthern Lowlands, and Western Highlands. Each represents a different physical part of Europe. The wide-ranging physical environment has provided Europe with an abundance of biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to diversity of the number of species in an ecosystem and the quantity of members in each species. The physical environment also provides natural resources and raw materials for human activities. Europe’s moderate climates and favorable relative location are supported by its access to the many rivers and seas. These advantageous developmental factors supported the development of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, which gave rise to highly technical and urban societies. Europe has emerged as one of the core economic centers of the global economy.

Alpine Region

The High Alps, which range from eastern France to Slovenia, are central to the Alpine region. Included in the Alpine Range are the Pyrenees, located on the border between France and Spain; the Apennines, running the length of Italy; the Carpathians, looping around Romania from Slovakia; and finally, the shorter Dinaric Alps in former Yugoslavia. Mountains usually provide minerals and ores that were placed there when the earth’s internal processes created the mountains. Mountains also isolate people by acting as a dividing range that can separate people into cultural groups.

The Alpine Region: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau from Männlichen—Swiss Alps
The Alpine Region: Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau from Männlichen—Swiss Alps

The Central Uplands

The region bordering the main Alps to the north, which includes a large portion of southern Germany extending eastward, is known as the Central Uplands. These foothills to the Alps are excellent sources of raw materials such as forest products and coal, which are valuable resources for industrial activities. The Central Uplands are also good locations for dairy farming and cattle raising. This middle portion of the continent has a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest, and the vegetation includes oak, elm, and maple trees intermingled with pine and fir trees. There are four distinct seasons in this region with moderate amounts of precipitation year-round. This region is sparsely populated except in the Danube, Rhine, and Elbe river valleys.

Lake Titisee in the Black Forest of Germany (located in the Central Uplands region)
Lake Titisee in the Black Forest of Germany (located in the Central Uplands region)

Northern Lowlands

Similar to the breadbasket of the midwestern United States, Europe’s Northern Lowlands possess excellent farmland. Major agricultural operations here provide for a large European population. The land is flat to rolling with relatively good soils. The Northern Lowlands are a great plain that extends across northern Europe from southern France, north through Germany, and then all the way to the Ural Mountains of Russia. This area is typified by prairies and areas of tall grasses and is mostly used as farmland. The lowlands area also contains bogs, heaths, and lakes. The eastern part of this great plain around Ukraine is characterized by a steppe biome. It is a flat and relatively dry region with short grasses and is generally an agricultural region. To see an example of a steppe biome, watch this short video:

HUMAN the movie: Aerial shooting: Steppes (Mongolia)

This eastern area has great swings in temperature, both from day to night and from summer to winter. Winter temperatures in the eastern steppe can drop to below −40 °F, with summer temperatures reaching as high as 105 °F. This is similar to the steppes of eastern Montana or western North Dakota in the United States.

Western Highlands

On the western edges of the European continent arise short rugged mountains called highlands that extend throughout Norway, parts of Britain, and portions of the Iberian Peninsula of Portugal and Spain. These Western Highlands hold sparser populations and are less attractive to large farming operations. Agriculture is usually limited to grazing livestock or farming in the valleys and meadows. The Scottish Highlands are noted for their wool products and Highland cattle. In England, the central chain of highlands called the Pennines proved valuable during the Industrial Revolution because they enabled hydropower and, later, coal mining. Coal mining was prominent in the highland regions of Wales. In the far northern regions of Scandinavia, tundra environments prevail. In this coldest and driest biome, permafrost dominates the landscape, and the land becomes soggy for brief periods during the few weeks of summer. The flora consists primarily of lichens, mosses, low shrubs, and wildflowers.

Scottish Highlands

Europe’s physical landforms, climate, and underlying resources have shaped the distribution of people across the region. When early humans began settling this region, they likely migrated through the Caucasus Mountains of Southwest Asia and across the Bosporus Strait from what is now Turkey into Greece. The Greeks provided much of the cultural and political foundations for modern European society. Greek ideals of democracy, humanism, and rationalism reemerged in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. The Roman Empire followed the Greek Empire, pushing further into Europe and leaving its own marks on European society. Modern European architecture, governance, and even language can be traced back to the Roman Empire’s influence.

Roman Empire
Roman Empire

The Roman’s vast European and Southwest Asian empire united the region under Christianity and created new networks of roads and trading ports. With the fall of the Roman Empire, however, tribal and ethnic allegiances reemerged and a number of invasions and migrations occurred. England, for example, was settled by the Germanic Anglo-Saxons, from which the name “England” or “Angeln” is derived, then by the Normans from present-day France.

Ancient Rome 101 | National Geographic

Europe today is comprised of 40 countries, but historically, this was a region dominated by kingdoms and empires – even fairly recently. A map of Europe from just 200 years ago looks strikingly different from today’s political boundaries. At that time, Greece and Turkey were still controlled by the Ottoman Empire and Italy was a conglomerate of various city-states and independent kingdoms. Many of the countries and political boundaries of Europe we know today were not formed until after World War II.

Europe's political boundaries were really different 200 years ago!
Europe’s political boundaries were really different 200 years ago!

The map of Europe continues to evolve. In February 2019, for instance, the country formerly known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia officially changed its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, or just North Macedonia, resolving a long dispute with Greece.

What does it mean to be European? Perhaps simply it means someone who’s from Europe. But what does it mean to be French or German or Spanish or British? These countries have long been comprised of a number of different ethnic and linguistic groups. Spain, for example, not only contains groups speaking Spanish, the language of the historic Castilian people of the region, but also the Basque-speaking region in the north, the Catalan-speaking region centered around Barcelona, and numerous other distinct language groups. The United Kingdom, while comprised primarily of people who identify as “English,” also includes the areas of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, each with a distinct linguistic and cultural identity. The Welsh are actually believed to be the oldest ethnic group within the United Kingdom, so perhaps they could argue that they represent the original national identity.

Languages of Europe
Languages of Europe

Before the creation of states as we understand them today, Europe, as with the rest of the world, was divided largely by ethnicity or tribe. Empires often took control of multiple ethnic areas. Familial allegiances were of fundamental importance. That’s not to say that geography or territory didn’t matter, but simply that who you were mattered more than where you were.

The creation of sovereign political states changed this notion. Multiple ethnicities were often lumped together under single political entities, sometimes due to peaceful alliances and sometimes due to armed conquest. In cases where a state was dominated by a single, homogeneous ethnic and linguistic cultural identity, we would refer to it as a nation-state, from the term state, meaning a sovereign political area, and nation, meaning a group with a distinct ethnic and cultural identity. Several European countries today are considered nation-states, including Poland, where 93 percent of the population is ethnically Polish, and Iceland, which is 92 percent Icelandic. Historically, countries like France and Germany were also considered nation-states, though immigration has changed their cultural landscape.

Migration has continually changed the cultural landscape of Europe and as immigrant groups have challenged or been challenged by ideas of nationalism.

Nationalism, taken to this extreme, is known as fascism. Fascists believe that national unity, to include a strong, authoritarian leader and a one-party state, provides a state with the most effective military and economy. Fascist governments might thus blame economic difficulty or military losses on groups that threaten national unity, even if those groups include their own citizens.

Within every country, ideas of nationalism grow, weaken, and change over time. Centrifugal forces are those that threaten national unity by dividing a state. These might include differing religious beliefs, linguistic differences, or even physical barriers within a state. Centripetal forces, on the other hand, tend to unify people within a country. A charismatic leader, a common religion or language, and a strong national infrastructure can all work as centripetal forces. Governments could also promote centripetal forces by unifying citizens against a common enemy, such as during the Cold War. Although the countries of Europe always had a significant amount of ethnic and linguistic variety, they typically maintained a strong sense of national identity. Religion in particular often worked as a centripetal force, uniting varying cultural groups under a common theological banner.

Europe’s population will continue to shift in terms of demographics and cultural identity. Recent economic changes and migration patterns have highlighted deep divides about ideas of national identity and the role of the region in global affairs. Europe continues to be an influential and economically important region and will likely continue to attract migrants from surrounding areas.

Key Takeaways:

✎ The traditional eastern boundary of Europe is the Ural Mountains.
✎ The Danube River is the longest river in Europe and flows through 10 countries.
✎ The Gulf Stream influences the climate of Europe.
✎ Europe’s relative location provided efficient travel times between Europe and the rest of the world, which contributed to Europe’s historical dominance.
✎ Europe has four main landforms: the Alpine region, Central Uplands, Northern Lowlands, and Western Highlands.
✎ Europe was historically comprised of various kingdoms and empires. Many of the countries and political boundaries of Europe we know today were not formed until after World War II

Next: 6.1: The British Isles

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Image and additional information credits:


European Physical Geography and Political Boundaries (© San Jose, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Strait of Gibraltar
By Florian Sauerland – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76492095
Strait of Gibraltar photo
By jose rambaud – Flickr: Tarifa, Estrecho de Gibraltar. Strait of Gibraltar, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23251316
Mediterranean Sea
By O H 237 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38364150
Europe physical map:
https://www.freeworldmaps.net/europe/europe-map.jpg
Danube River map
CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62259455
Map of Land and Water Hemispheres and Europe’s Relative Location
(Derivative work from original by Citynoise, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Europe’s climate
By Enhanced, modified, and vectorized by Ali Zifan. – Derived from World Köppen Classification (with authors).svg., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47085770
Europe’s four main landforms
https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/2-1-introducing-the-realm/
Alps
https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/2-1-introducing-the-realm/
Lake Titisee in the Black Forest
By Ignaz Wiradi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16694541
Scotland Highlands
By S. Alexander Gilmour – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47122168
Roman empire
By File:RomanEmpire 117.svg: The original uploader was Andrei nacu at English Wikipedia. / *derivative work Begoon – This file was derived from:  RomanEmpire 117.svg:, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23098392
Map of Europe in 1812
By Alexander Altenhof – Own work. Source of Information:– Map “L’apogée de l’Empire Français (avant la campagne de Russie)” (Author unknown)(Link)– Dr. Walter Leiserung (ed.): Historischer Weltatlas, Marix Verlag, Wiesbaden 2004, ISBN 978-3-937715-59-9– Zentralinstitut für Geschichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR (ed.): Atlas zur Geschichte, Band 1, VEB Hermann Haack, Gotha 1989, ISBN 3-7301-0040-8– Prof. Dr. Vadim Oswalt, Prof. Dr. Hans Ulrich Rudolf (ed.): Klett-Perthes Atlas zur Weltgeschichte, Ernst Klett Verlag, Stuttgart 2011, ISBN 978-3-12-828194-0– Ferenc Majoros u. Bernd Rill: Das Osmanische Reich 1300-1922. Die Geschichte einer Großmacht, Lzenzausgabe für Weltbild Verlag, Augsburg 2000, ISBN 3-8289-0336-3, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21366121
Languages of Europe
By File:Languages of Europe.svg: The original uploader was Andrei nacu at English Wikipedia.[1]Later version(s) were uploaded by Ervidervi, Komita at en.wikipedia.derivative work: Hayden120 (talk) – This file was derived from:  Languages of Europe.svg:, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18440170

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