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2.1: European Physical Geography and Boundaries

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  • Learning Objectives

    • Identify the key geographic features of Europe
    • Explain how the industrial revolution has shaped the geographic landscape of Europe
    • Summarize how migration has impacted Europe’s population
    • Describe the current controversies regarding migration to Europe

    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 (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Eurasia is a massive tectonic plate, so determining where exactly Europe ends and Asia begins is difficult. Europe is bordered by the Arctic Ocean in the North, the Atlantic Ocean and its seas to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea to the south. Europe’s eastern boundary is typically given as the Ural Mountains, which run north to south from the Arctic Ocean down through Russia to Kazakhstan. The western portion of Russia, containing the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, is thus considered part of Europe while the eastern portion is considered part of Asia. Culturally and physiographically, Western Russia is strikingly similar to Eastern Europe. These two regions share a common history as well with Russian influence extending throughout this transition zone.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): European Physical Geography and Political Boundaries (© San Jose, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    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 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, 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.

    This proximity to water also affects Europe’s climate (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). 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)!

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Europe Climate Classification (© Ali Zifan, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

    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 (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). 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.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Map of Land and Water Hemispheres and Europe’s Relative Location (Derivative work from original by Citynoise, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

    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.

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