Climates and Landforms

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Climates and Landforms


Bodies of Water. The continent of Europe is flanked by two great bodies of water—the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. The Mediterranean had been the center of European civilization and trade since antiquity, while the Atlantic became its main highway for international relations after the sixteenth century. Most of Europe was easily connected for commerce by its many navigable rivers that emptied into large inland seas (notably the Baltic Sea to the north and the Black Sea to the southeast). The major rivers of western, central, and eastern Europe, including Russia, tend to flow in a north-to-south axis, thus directing the movement of goods and raw materials between the Mediterranean Sea and the North Atlantic. The great rivers of France are the Garonne in the southwest, the Loire in the northwest, the Rhone in the southeast, and the Seine in the north. Like the Loire and Seine, the Rhine flows northwesterly and drains into the Atlantic. Germany’s other great rivers are the Weser and the Elbe, while the mighty Danube bisects eastern Europe, flowing southeasterly through the great cities of Prague, Vienna, and Budapest before emptying into the Black Sea near Odessa. Also, in eastern Europe the Vistula flows through Poland while the Dnieper, the Don, and the Volga course through Ukraine and Russia. Again, these long rivers of eastern Europe created a “river road” linking the Black Sea and the Mediterranean in the south to the Baltic and the Atlantic in the north. During the early industrial age before 1850 and the advent of the railroad, some of these rivers became linked by canals to facilitate further the movement of people and goods.

Climate. Despite much of the continent being situated in northerly latitudes, parts of Europe enjoy a relatively mild climate. Southern Europe flanks the northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and, like North Africa and the Levant coast of the Middle East, has a mild, wet winter and a long, dry summer. This climate is called Mediterranean Summer-Dry and is similar to the climate of southern California. Europe northwest of the Alps also has a mild winter despite its northerly latitude because of the moderating effect on temperature of the Atlantic Ocean. Through this body of water runs the Gulf Stream, effectively a river within the ocean that originates in the Gulf of Mexico. Warmed by the tropics, its waters run past Florida and across the Atlantic toward western Europe and the British Isles. Warm water meeting cool moist air creates the Marine West Coast climate, which is cool and wet in the summer and relatively warm and wet in the winter. This climate is similar to the coasts of the Pacific Northwest states of Washington and Oregon in the United States, also warmed by an ocean current. Central and eastern Europe, including Russia west of the Urals, are beyond the reach of the warming influence of the Atlantic, and so have much more severe winters. Their climate is classified as Continental. As a rule, the summers become shorter and cooler the further removed the region is from the Atlantic Ocean. The northern reaches of this climate are subclassified as subarctic. Mountainous regions, of course, are cooler than Lowlands and are classified as Highlands. Parts of northern Europe, including Scandinavia, even have Polar climates known as tundra. Here in the southerly parts one finds coniferous forests, or taiga, much like central and northern Canada, although within the Arctic Circle toward the Polar ice cap, snow and ice cover the treeless ground year round, creating the tundra zone.

Landforms. As with its climate, there is considerable variation in Europe’s physiography, or landforms. Southern Europe tends to be mountainous as a result of the Alpine System that extends even into North Africa and the Middle East. The massive Alps, which divide southern Europe from northern and western Europe, rise at the highest to nearly sixteen thousand feet. Deep mountain passes (for example, the Brenner and the St. Gothard) have linked Europe for centuries. Other mountains in the system are the Apennines, a spine that divides the Italian Peninsula between East and West, the Pyrenees in the northern reaches of the Iberian Peninsula, and the Carpathians in eastern Europe. Much of the northern portions of western, central and eastern Europe, including European Russia, are covered by the Great European Plain. This area is rich for agriculture because of its flatness, deep fertile soils, and fairly long growing season.

France was especially blessed with this condition. Two smaller physiographic provinces are the Western Uplands and the Central Uplands. The Western Uplands include the hills of Celtic Britain and Scandinavia and have soils poor for farming. The Central Uplands of southern France, central Germany, and Czechia (Czech Republic) also have poorer soils for agriculture.


Atlas of World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations (New York: Penguin, 1994).

James R. Penn, Encyclopedia of Geographical Features in World History: Europe and the Americas (Santa Barbara, Cal.: ABC-CLIO, 1997).

Lester Rowntree, and others, Diversity Amid Globalization (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000).

Tim Unwin, ed., Atlas of World Development (New York: John Wiley, 1994).