The huge Alpine mountain chain, of which the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Carpathians, the Balkans, and the Caucasus are the principal links, traverses the continent from west to east. The highest points are Mt. Elbrus (18,481 ft/5,633 m) in the Caucasus and Mont Blanc (15,771 ft/4,807 m) in the Alps. Europe's lowest point (92 ft/28 m below sea level) is the surface of the Caspian Sea. Between the mountainous Scandinavian peninsula in the north and the Alpine chain in the south lie the Central European Uplands surrounded by the great European plain, stretching from the Atlantic coast of France to the Urals.
A large part of this plain (which is interrupted by minor mountain groups and hills) has fertile agricultural soil; in the east and north there are vast steppe, forest, lake, and tundra regions. South of the Alpine chain extend the Iberian, Italian, and Balkan peninsulas, which are largely mountainous. The Po plain, between the Alps and the Apennines, and the Alföld plain, between the Carpathians and the Alps, are fertile and much-developed regions. Among the chief river systems of Europe are, from east to west, those of the Volga, the Don, the Dnieper, the Danube, the Vistula, the Oder, the Elbe, the Rhine, the Rhône, the Loire, the Garonne, and the Tagus.Climate
The climate of Europe varies from subtropical to polar. The Mediterranean climate of the south is dry and warm. The western and northwestern parts have a mild, generally humid climate, influenced by the North Atlantic Drift. In central and eastern Europe the climate is of the humid continental-type with cool summers. In the northeast subarctic and tundra climates are found. All of Europe is subject to the moderating influence of prevailing westerly winds from the Atlantic Ocean and, consequently, its climates are found at higher latitudes than similar climates on other continents.Regions
Europe can be divided into seven geographic regions: Scandinavia (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark); the British Isles (the United Kingdom and Ireland); W Europe (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Monaco); S Europe (Portugal, Spain, Andorra, Italy, Malta, San Marino, and Vatican City); Central Europe (Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary); SE Europe (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and the European part of Turkey); and E Europe (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, the European portion of Russia, and by convention the Transcaucasian countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan).
Indo-European languages (see The Indo-European Family of Languages, table) predominate in Europe; others spoken include Basque, Maltese, and the languages classified as Finno-Ugric, Samoyedic, Bulgaric, and Turkic. Roman Catholicism is the chief religion of S and W Europe and the southern part of central Europe; Protestantism is dominant in Great Britain, Scandinavia, and the northern part of Europe; the Orthodox Eastern Church predominates in E and SE Europe; and there are pockets of of Muslim predominance in the Balkan Peninsula and Transcaucasia. With the exception of the northern third of the continent, Europe is densely populated. Eleven cities have populations exceeding two million inhabitants; London, Moscow, and Paris are the largest cities.
Europe is highly industrialized; the largest industrial areas are found in W central Europe, England, N Italy, Ukraine, and European Russia. Agriculture, forestry (in N Europe), and fishing (along the Atlantic coast) are also important. Europe has a large variety of minerals; coal, iron ore, and salt are abundant. Oil and gas are found in E Europe and beneath the North Sea. Coal is used to produce a significant, but declining amount of Europe's electricity; in Norway and Sweden and in the Alps hydroelectric plants supply a large percentage of the power. More than 25% of Europe's electricity is generated from nuclear power.
The transportation system in Europe is highly developed; interconnecting rivers and canals provide excellent inland water transportation in central and W Europe. The Channel Tunnel connects Great Britain to France. The countries of Europe engage heavily in foreign trade, and some of the world's greatest ports are found there. Rotterdam with the huge new Europort complex, London, Le Havre, Hamburg, Genoa, and Marseilles are the chief ports.
The beginnings of civilization in Europe can be traced to very ancient times, but they are not as old as the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Roman and Greek cultures flourished in Europe, and European civilization—language, technology, political concepts, and the Christian religion—have been spread throughout the world by European colonists and immigrants. Throughout history, Europe has been the scene of many great and destructive wars that have ravaged both rural and urban areas. Once embraced by vast and powerful empires and kingdoms, successful nationalistic uprisings (especially in the 19th cent.) divided the continent into many sovereign states. The political fragmentation led to economic competition and political strife among the states.Modern History
After World War II, Europe became divided into two ideological blocs (Eastern Europe, dominated by the USSR, and Western Europe, dominated by the United States) and became engaged in the cold war. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed as a military deterrent to the spread of Communism and sought to maintain a military balance with its eastern equivalent, the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Cold war tensions eased in the 1960s, and signs of normalization of East-West relations appeared in the 1970s.
In Western Europe, the European Economic Community (Common Market), the European Coal and Steel Community, and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) merged in 1967 to form the European Community. Known since 1993 as the European Union, the organization aims to develop economic and monetary union among its members, ultimately leading to political union. The Eastern European counterpart was the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), which, like the Warsaw Treaty Organization, dissolved with the breakup of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s.
The loosening of political control sparked a revival of the long pent-up ethnic nationalism and a wave of democratization that led to an overthrow of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe. In the former Yugoslavia, ethnic tensions between Muslims, Croats, and Serbs were unleashed, leading to civil war and massacres of members of ethnic groups, or "ethnic cleansing," in areas where other groups won military control. During the early and mid-1990s most of the former Soviet bloc countries embarked on economic restructuring programs to transform their centralized economies into market-based ones. The pace of reform varied, especially as the hardships involved became increasingly evident. Meanwhile, in Western Europe the European Union, amid some tensions, continued working toward greater political and economic unity, including the creation of a common European currency.
See S. B. Clough et al., ed., The European Past (2 vol., 1964); Denis de Rougemont, The Idea of Europe (tr. 1966); John Bowle, The Unity of European History: A Political and Cultural Survey (rev. and enl. ed. 1970); Richard Mayne, The Europeans: Who Are We? (1972); René Albrecht-Carrié, A Diplomatic History of Europe since the Congress of Vienna (rev. ed. 1973); European Security and the Atlantic System, ed. by W. T. Fox and W. R. Schilling (1973); Stephen Usherwood, Europe, Century by Century (1973); Dennis Swann, Competition and Industrial Policy in the European Community (1983); George Schöpflin, The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (1986); Richard Mayne, ed., Western Europe (1987); T. G. Jordan, The European Culture Area (2d ed. 1988); James Dudley, 1992, Understanding the New European Market (1990); B. Gwertzman and M. Kaufman, The Collapse of Communism (1990); T. Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (2005).
Organization of more than 40 European states formed to promote European unity, protect human rights, and facilitate social and economic progress. Established in 1949 by 10 western European states, it has devised international agreements on human rights and established a number of special bodies and expert committees on social, legal, and cultural issues. It is headquartered in Strasbourg, France. (The Council of Europe should not be confused with the European Council, which is a policy-making body of the European Union.)
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Modern humans supplanted the scanty Neanderthal population in Europe about 40,000 years ago, and by the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE the general population groups that would become the historical peoples and countries of Europe were in place. The Greek civilizations were the earliest in Europe, and in the Classical period the Greeks were a conduit for the advanced civilizations of the Middle East, which, along with the unique Greek contribution, laid the foundation for European civilization. By the mid-2nd century BCE the Greeks had come under Roman control, and the vast Roman Empire brought to the conquered parts of Europe the civilization the Greeks had begun. It was through the Romans that Christianity penetrated Europe. The Roman Empire in the West finally collapsed in the 5th century CE, which led to an extensive breakdown of Classical civilization. During the period that followed, known as the Middle Ages, the idea of Europe as a distinct cultural unit emerged. The subsequent Renaissance (15th–16th centuries) began the modern European traditions of science, exploration, and discovery. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century ended the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church over western and northern Europe, and the Enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th centuries stressed the primacy of reason. In the late 18th century, Enlightenment ideals helped spur the French Revolution, which toppled Europe's most powerful monarchy and spearheaded the movement toward democracy and equality. The late 18th century also marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which led to Europe's military and political dominance over much of the world for the next century. In the early 20th century the European powers were divided by World War I, which led to the effective end of monarchy in Europe and created a host of new countries in central and eastern Europe. World War II marked a waning of world power among the states of western Europe and was followed by the rise of communism in eastern Europe, with the Soviet Union and its satellites sharply divided from the rest of the continent. The Soviet Union collapsed in the late 20th century, leading to the demise of communist regimes throughout Europe. Soviet satellites became independent, and most began to democratize. East and West Germany were reunified. Yugoslavia and its successor states, however, experienced ethnic conflict (see Kosovo conflict; Bosnian conflict). Seealso European Union; NATO.
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In the post-Napoleonic era, the consensus among the European monarchies favoring preservation of the territorial and political status quo. The term assumed the responsibility and the right of the great powers to intervene in states threatened by internal rebellion. The powers discussed such intervention at several congresses, including those of Aix-la-Chapelle, Troppau, Laibach, and Verona.
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Europe is the world's second-smallest continent by surface area, covering about 10,180,000 square kilometres (3,930,000 sq mi) or 2% of the Earth's surface and about 6.8% of its land area. Of Europe's approximately 50 states, Russia is the largest by both area and population, while the Vatican City is the smallest. Europe is the third most populous continent after Asia and Africa, with a population of 731,000,000 or about 11% of the world's population; however, according to the United Nations, Europe's share will fall to 7% in 2050, numbering 653,000,000.
Europe is the birthplace of Western culture. European nations played a predominant role in global affairs from the 16th century onwards, especially after the beginning of Colonialism. By the 17th and 18th centuries, European nations controlled most of Africa, the Americas, and large portions of Asia. World War I and World War II led to a decline in European dominance in world affairs as the United States and Soviet Union took prominence. The Cold War between those two superpowers divided Europe along the Iron Curtain. European integration led to the formation of the Council of Europe and the European Union in Western Europe, both of which have been expanding eastward since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Etymologically, the dominant theory suggests the name Europe is derived from the Greek roots meaning broad (eur-) and eye (op-, opt-), hence Eurṓpē, "wide-gazing" (compare with glaukōpis (grey-eyed) Athena or boōpis (ox-eyed) Hera). Broad has been an epithet of Earth itself in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European religion. A minority, however, suggest that it is really based on a Semitic word such as the Akkadian erebu meaning "to go down, set" (cf. Occident), cognate to Phoenician 'ereb "evening; west" and Arabic Maghreb, Hebrew ma'ariv. See also Erebus, PIE *h1regwos, "darkness".
Most major world languages use words derived from "Europa" to refer to the continent. Chinese, for example, uses the word Ōuzhōu (歐洲), which is an abbreviation of the transliterated name Ōuluóbā zhōu (歐羅巴洲); however, the Turkish people used the term Frengistan (land of the Franks) in referring to much of Europe.
Homo georgicus, which lived roughly 1.8 million years ago in Georgia, is the earliest hominid to have been discovered in Europe. Other hominid remains, dating back roughly 1 million years, have been discovered in Atapuerca, Spain. Neanderthal man (named for the Neander Valley in Germany) first migrated to Europe 150,000 years ago and disappeared from the fossil record about 30,000 years ago. The Neanderthals were supplanted by modern humans (Cro-Magnons), who appeared around 40,000 years ago. During the latter part of this era, a period of megalith construction took place, with many megalithic monuments such as Stonehenge being constructed throughout Europe.
In terms of human society, Prehistoric Europe was inhabited first by nomadic bands, subsequently followed by tribal cultures. Early city-states and states spread broadly from the Fertile Crescent outward around 5000 BC. This led to the various Persian empires and the city-states of Ancient Greece around 700 BC.
Ancient Greece had a profound impact on Western civilization. Western democratic and individualistic culture are often attributed to Ancient Greece. The Greeks invented the polis, or city-state, which played a fundamental role in their concept of identity. These Greek political ideals were rediscovered in the late 18th century by European philosophers and idealists. Greece also generated many cultural contributions: in philosophy, humanism and rationalism under Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato; in history with Herodotus and Thucydides; in dramatic and narrative verse, starting with the epic poems of Homer; and in science with Pythagoras, Euclid, and Archimedes.
Another major influence on Europe came from the Roman Empire which left its mark on law, language, engineering, architecture, and government. During the pax romana, the Roman Empire expanded to encompass the entire Mediterranean Basin and much of Europe. Stoicism influenced emperors such as Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, who all spent time on the Empire's northern border fighting Germanic, Pictish and Scottish tribes. Christianity was eventually legitimized by Constantine I after three centuries of imperial persecution.
During the decline of the Roman Empire, Europe entered a long period of change arising from what historians call the "Age of Migrations". There were numerous invasions and migrations amongst the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Goths, Vandals, Huns, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and, later still, the Vikings and Normans. Renaissance thinkers such as Petrarch would later refer to this as the "Dark Ages". Isolated monastic communities were the only places to safeguard and compile written knowledge accumulated previously; apart from this very few written records survive and much literature, philosophy, mathematics, and other thinking from the classical period disappeared from Europe.
During the Dark Ages, the Western Roman Empire fell under the control of Celtic, Slavic and Germanic tribes. The Celtic tribes established their kingdoms in Gaul, the predecessor to the Frankish kingdoms that eventually became France. The Germanic and Slav tribes established their domains over Central and Eastern Europe respectively. Eventually the Frankish tribes were united under Clovis I. Charlemagne, a Frankish king of the Carolingian dynasty who had conquered most of Western Europe, was anointed "Holy Roman Emperor" by the Pope in 800. This led to the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, which eventually became centred in the German principalities of central Europe.
The Eastern Roman Empire became known in the west as the Byzantine Empire. Based in Constantinople, they viewed themselves as the natural successors to the Roman Empire. Emperor Justinian I presided over Constantinople's first golden age: he established a legal code, funded the construction of the Hagia Sophia and brought the Christian church under state control. Fatally weakened by the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, the Byzantines fell in 1453 when they were conquered by the Ottoman Empire.
The Middle Ages were dominated by the two upper echelons of the social structure: the nobility and the clergy. Feudalism developed in France in the Early Middle Ages and soon spread throughout Europe. The struggle between the nobility and the monarchy in England led to the writing of the Magna Carta and the establishment of a parliament. The primary source of culture in this period came from the Roman Catholic Church. Through monasteries and cathedral schools, the Church was responsible for education in much of Europe.
The Papacy reached the height of its power during the High Middle Ages. The East-West Schism in 1054 split the former Roman Empire religiously, with the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire and the Roman Catholic Church in the former Western Roman Empire. In 1095 Pope Urban II called for a crusade against Muslims occupying Jerusalem and the Holy Land. In Europe itself, the Church organized the Inquisition against heretics. In Spain, the Reconquista concluded with the fall of Granada in 1492, ending over seven centuries of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, constant incursions by nomadic Turkic tribes, such as the Kipchaks and the Pechenegs, caused a massive migration of Slavic populations to the safer, heavily forested regions of the north. Like many other parts of Eurasia, these territories were overrun by the Mongols. The invaders, later known as Tatars, formed the state of the Golden Horde, which ruled the southern and central expanses of Russia for over three centuries.
Europe was devastated in the mid-14th century by the Black Death, one of the most deadly pandemics in human history which killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe alone — a third of the European population at the time. This had a devastating effect on Europe's social structure; it induced people to live for the moment as illustrated by Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron (1353). It was a serious blow to the Roman Catholic Church and led to increased persecution of Jews, foreigners, beggars and lepers.
The Renaissance was a period of cultural change originating in Italy in the fourteenth century. The rise of a new humanism was accompanied by the recovery of forgotten classical and Arabic knowledge from monastic libraries and the Islamic world. The Renaissance spread across Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries: it saw the flowering of art, philosophy, music, and the sciences, under the joint patronage of royalty, the nobility, the Roman Catholic Church, and an emerging merchant class. Patrons in Italy, including the Medici family of Florentine bankers and the Popes in Rome, funded prolific quattrocento and cinquecento artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Political intrigue within the Church in the mid-14th century caused the Great Schism. During this forty-year period, two popes—one in Avignon and one in Rome—claimed rulership over the Church. Although the schism was eventually healed in 1417, the papacy's spiritual authority had suffered greatly. The Church's power was further weakened by the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther, a result of the lack of reform within the Church. The Reformation also damaged the Holy Roman Empire's power, as German princes became divided between Protestant and Roman Catholic faiths. This eventually led to the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), which crippled the Holy Roman Empire and devastated much of Germany. In the aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia, France rose to predominance within Europe.
The Renaissance and the New Monarchs marked the start of an Age of Discovery, a period of exploration, invention, and scientific development. In the 15th century, Portugal and Spain, two of the greatest naval powers of the time, took the lead in exploring the world. Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, and soon after the Spanish and Portuguese began establishing colonial empires in the Americas. France, the Netherlands and England soon followed in building large colonial empires with vast holdings in Africa, the Americas, and Asia.
Napoleonic rule resulted in the further dissemination of the ideals of the French Revolution, including that of nation-state, as well as the widespread adoption of the French model for administration, law and education. The Congress of Vienna was convened after Napoleon's downfall. It established a new balance of power in Europe centred on the five "great powers": the United Kingdom, France, Prussia, Habsburg Austria and Russia. This balance would remain in place until the Revolutions of 1848, during which liberal uprisings affected all of Europe except for Russia and Great Britain. The revolutions were eventually put down by more conservative elements and few reforms resulted. In 1867 the Austro-Hungarian empire was formed; and 1871 saw the unifications of both Italy and Germany as nation-states from smaller principalities.
The Industrial Revolution started in Great Britain in the last part of the 18th century and spread throughout Europe. The invention and implementation of new technology resulted in rapid urban growth, mass employment and the rise of a new working class. Reforms in social and economic spheres followed, including the first laws on child labour, the legalization of Trade Unions and the abolition of slavery. In Britain the Public Health Act of 1875 was passed, which significantly improved living conditions in many British cities.
Two World Wars and an economic depression dominated the first half of the 20th century. World War I was fought between 1914 and 1918. It started when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. Most European nations were drawn into the war, which was fought between the Entente Powers (France, Belgium, Serbia, Russia, the United Kingdom, and later Italy, Romania, and the United States) and the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire). The War left around 40 million civilians and military dead. Over 60 million European soldiers were mobilized from 1914–1918. Partly as a result of its defeat Russia was plunged into the Russian Revolution, which threw down the Tsarist monarchy and replaced it with the communist Soviet Union. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire collapsed and broke up into separate nations, and many other nations had their borders redrawn. The Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I in 1919, was harsh towards Germany, upon whom it placed full responsibility for the war and imposed heavy sanctions.
Economic instability, caused in part by debts incurred in the First World War and 'loans' to Germany played havoc in Europe in the late 1920s and 1930s. This and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought about the worldwide Great Depression. Helped by the economic crisis Fascist movements developed throughout Europe placing Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany, Francisco Franco of Spain and Benito Mussolini of Italy in power.
Driven by his ideals of war and power, Hitler started expanding Germany steadily after coming to authority in 1933. The Saarland was incorporated in 1935 and Austria with the so-called Anschluss in 1938. Later in 1938 the Sudetenland was annexed in a move that was highly contested by the other powers, but ultimately permitted in hopes of appeasing Hitler. In early 1939, the remainder of Czechoslovakia was split into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, incorporated in Nazi Germany, and the Slovak satellite state. The German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, prompted France and the United Kingdom to declare war to Germany on 3 September. The Soviet invasion of Poland and the Baltic countries started on 17 September. After occupying the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway quickly, Germany forced French capitulation in June 1940. However, the subsequent bombing offensive on Britain determined the first failure to Germany's bellicose operations. In 1941 Germany turned on their former Soviet allies with an ultimately unsuccessful invasion of the Soviet Union. On 7 December 1941 Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into the conflict as allies of the British Empire and other allied forces. After the staggering battle of Stalingrad in 1943, the German offensive on Soviet territory turned into a continual fallback. In 1944 British and American forces invaded France in the D-Day landings opening a second front on Germany. Berlin finally fell in 1945, ending World War II in Europe. The war was the largest and most destructive in human history, with 60 million dead across the world, including between 9 and 11 million people who perished during the Holocaust.
World War I and especially World War II diminished the eminence of Western Europe in world affairs. After World War II the map of Europe was redrawn at the Yalta Conference and divided into two blocs, the Western countries and the communist Eastern bloc, separated by what was later called by Winston Churchill an "iron curtain". The United States and Western Europe established the NATO alliance and later the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe established the Warsaw Pact. The two new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, became locked in a fifty-year long Cold War, centred on nuclear proliferation. At the same time decolonization, which had already started after World War I, gradually resulted in the independence of most of the European colonies in Asia and Africa. In the 1980s the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev and the solidarity movement in Poland accelerated the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the end of the Cold War. Germany was reunited, after the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the maps of Eastern Europe were redrawn once more.
European integration also grew in the post-World War II years. The Treaty of Rome in 1957 established the European Economic Community between six Western European states with the goal of a unified economic policy and common market. In 1967 the EEC, European Coal and Steel Community and Euratom formed the European Community, which in 1993 became the European Union. The EU established a parliament, court and central bank and introduced the euro as a unified currency. Beginning in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, Eastern European countries began joining, expanding the EU to its current size of 27 European nations, and once more making Europe a major economical and political centre of power.
Physiographically, Europe is the northwestern constituent of the larger landmass known as Eurasia, or Afro-Eurasia: Asia occupies the eastern bulk of this continuous landmass and all share a common continental shelf. Europe's eastern frontier is now commonly delineated by the Ural Mountains in Russia. The first century AD geographer Strabo, took the Tanais River to be the boundary, as did early Judaic sources. The southeast boundary with Asia is not universally defined. Most commonly the Ural or, alternatively, the Emba River serve as possible boundaries. The boundary continues to the Caspian Sea, the crest of the Caucasus Mountains or, alternatively, the Kura River in the Caucasus, and on to the Black Sea; the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles, and the Aegean Sea conclude the Asian boundary. The Mediterranean Sea to the south separates Europe from Africa. The western boundary is the Atlantic Ocean; Iceland, though nearer to Greenland (North America) than mainland Europe, is generally included in Europe.
Because of sociopolitical and cultural differences, there are various descriptions of Europe's boundary; in some sources, some territories are not included in Europe, while other sources include them. For instance, geographers from Russia and other post-Soviet states generally include the Urals in Europe while including Caucasia in Asia. Similarly, numerous geographers consider Azerbaijan's and Armenia's southern borders with Iran and Turkey's southern and eastern borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran as the boundary between Asia and Europe because of political and cultural reasons. In the same way, despite being close to Asia and Africa, the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta are often considered part of Europe.
Land relief in Europe shows great variation within relatively small areas. The southern regions, however, are more mountainous, while moving north the terrain descends from the high Alps, Pyrenees and Carpathians, through hilly uplands, into broad, low northern plains, which are vast in the east. This extended lowland is known as the Great European Plain, and at its heart lies the North German Plain. An arc of uplands also exists along the north-western seaboard, which begins in the western parts of the islands of Britain and Ireland, and then continues along the mountainous, fjord-cut, spine of Norway.
This description is simplified. Sub-regions such as the Iberian Peninsula and the Italian Peninsula contain their own complex features, as does mainland Central Europe itself, where the relief contains many plateaus, river valleys and basins that complicate the general trend. Sub-regions like Iceland, Britain and Ireland are special cases. The former is a land unto itself in the northern ocean which is counted as part of Europe, while the latter are upland areas that were once joined to the mainland until rising sea levels cut them off.
The climate is milder in comparison to other areas of the same latitude around the globe due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is nicknamed "Europe's central heating", because it makes Europe's climate warmer and wetter than it would otherwise be. The Gulf Stream not only carries warm water to Europe's coast but also warms up the prevailing westerly winds that blow across the continent from the Atlantic Ocean.
Therefore the average temperature throughout the year of Naples is 16 °C (60.8 °F), while it is only 12 °C (53.6 °F) in New York City which is almost on the same latitude. Berlin, Germany; Calgary, Canada; and Irkutsk, in the Asian part of Russia, lie on around the same latitude; January temperatures in Berlin average around 8 °C (15 °F) higher than those in Calgary, and they are almost 22 °C (40 °F) higher than average temperatures in Irkutsk.
Europe's most significant feature is the dichotomy between highland and mountainous Southern Europe and a vast, partially underwater, northern plain ranging from England in the west to Ural Mountains in the east. These two halves are separated by the mountain chains of the Pyrenees and Alps/Carpathians. The northern plains are delimited in the west by the Scandinavian Mountains and the mountainous parts of the British Isles. Major shallow water bodies submerging parts of the northern plains are the Celtic Sea, the North Sea, the Baltic Sea complex and Barents Sea.
The northern plain contains the old geological continent of Baltica, and so may be regarded geologically as the "main continent", while peripheral highlands and mountainous regions in the south and west constitute fragments from various other geological continents. Most of the older geology of Western Europe existed as part of the ancient microcontinent Avalonia.
Having lived side-by-side with agricultural peoples for millennia, Europe's animals and plants have been profoundly affected by the presence and activities of man. With the exception of Fennoscandia and northern Russia, few areas of untouched wilderness are currently found in Europe, except for various national parks.
The main natural vegetation cover in Europe is mixed forest. The conditions for growth are very favourable. In the north, the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift warm the continent. Southern Europe could be described as having a warm, but mild climate. There are frequent summer droughts in this region. Mountain ridges also affect the conditions. Some of these (Alps, Pyrenees) are oriented east-west and allow the wind to carry large masses of water from the ocean in the interior. Others are oriented south-north (Scandinavian Mountains, Dinarides, Carpathians, Apennines) and because the rain falls primarily on the side of mountains that is oriented towards sea, forests grow well on this side, while on the other side, the conditions are much less favourable. Few corners of mainland Europe have not been grazed by livestock at some point in time, and the cutting down of the pre-agricultural forest habitat caused disruption to the original plant and animal ecosystems.
Probably eighty to ninety per cent of Europe was once covered by forest. It stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean. Though over half of Europe's original forests disappeared through the centuries of deforestation, Europe still has over one quarter of its land area as forest, such as the taiga of Scandinavia and Russia, mixed rainforests of the Caucasus and the Cork oak forests in the western Mediterranean. During recent times, deforestation has been slowed and many trees have been planted. However, in many cases monoculture plantations of conifers have replaced the original mixed natural forest, because these grow quicker. The plantations now cover vast areas of land, but offer poorer habitats for many European forest dwelling species which require a mixture of tree species and diverse forest structure. The amount of natural forest in Western Europe is just 2–3% or less, in European Russia 5–10%. The country with the smallest percentage of forested area (excluding the micronations) is Iceland (1%), while the most forested country is Finland (77%).
In temperate Europe, mixed forest with both broadleaf and coniferous trees dominate. The most important species in central and western Europe are beech and oak. In the north, the taiga is a mixed spruce-pine-birch forest; further north within Russia and extreme northern Scandinavia, the taiga gives way to tundra as the Arctic is approached. In the Mediterranean, many olive trees have been planted, which are very well adapted to its arid climate; Mediterranean Cypress is also widely planted in southern Europe. The semi-arid Mediterranean region hosts much scrub forest. A narrow east-west tongue of Eurasian grassland (the steppe) extends eastwards from Ukraine and southern Russia and ends in Hungary and traverses into taiga to the north.
Glaciation during the most recent ice age and the presence of man affected the distribution of European fauna. As for the animals, in many parts of Europe most large animals and top predator species have been hunted to extinction. The woolly mammoth was extinct before the end of the Neolithic period. Today wolves (carnivores) and bears (omnivores) are endangered. Once they were found in most parts of Europe. However, deforestation and hunting caused these animals to withdraw further and further. By the Middle Ages the bears' habitats were limited to more or less inaccessible mountains with sufficient forest cover. Today, the brown bear lives primarily in the Balkan peninsula, Scandinavia, and Russia; a small number also persist in other countries across Europe (Austria, Pyrenees etc.), but in these areas brown bear populations are fragmented and marginalised because of the destruction of their habitat. In addition, polar bears may be found on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago far north of Scandinavia. The wolf, the second largest predator in Europe after the brown bear, can be found primarily in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans, with a handful of packs in pockets of Western Europe (Scandinavia, Spain, etc.).
Other important European carnivores are Eurasian lynx, European wild cat, foxes (especially the red fox), jackal and different species of martens, hedgehogs, different species of reptiles (like snakes as (vipers and grass snakes) and amphibians, different birds (owls, hawks and other birds of prey).
Sea creatures are also an important part of European flora and fauna. The sea flora is mainly phytoplankton. Important animals that live in European seas are zooplankton, molluscs, echinoderms, different crustaceans, squids and octopuses, fish, dolphins, and whales.
Since the Renaissance, Europe has had a major influence in culture, economics and social movements in the world. European demographics are important not only historically, but also in understanding current international relations and population issues.
Some current and past issues in European demographics have included religious emigration, race relations, economic immigration, a declining birth rate and an aging population. In some countries, such as Ireland and Poland, access to abortion is currently limited; in the past, such restrictions and also restrictions on artificial birth control were commonplace throughout Europe. Furthermore, three European countries (The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland) and the Autonomous Community of Andalusia (Spain) have allowed a limited form of voluntary euthanasia for some terminally ill people.
In 2005 the population of Europe was estimated to be 731 million according to the United Nations, which is slightly more than one-ninth of the world's population. A century ago Europe had nearly a quarter of the world's population. The population of Europe has grown in the past century, but in other areas of the world (in particular Africa and Asia) the population has grown far more quickly. According to UN population projection (medium variant), Europe's share will fall to 7% in 2050, numbering 653 million. Within this context, significant disparities exist between religions in relation to fertility rates. The average number of children per female of child bearing age is 1.52. According to some sources, this rate is higher among Muslims. In 2005 the EU had an overall net gain from immigration of 1.8 million people, despite having one of the highest population densities in the world. This accounted for almost 85% of Europe's total population growth. A tough new EU immigration law detaining illegal immigrants for up to 18 months before deportation has triggered outrage across Latin America, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez threatening to cut off oil exports to Europe.
According to different definitions, the territories may be subject to various categorisations. The table below shows the scheme for geographic subregions used by the United Nations, alongside the regional grouping published in the CIA factbook. The socio-geographical data included are per sources in cross-referenced articles. Where they differ, provisos are clearly indicated.
| Name of region and|
territory, with flag
(1 July 2002 est.)
| Population density|
|Andorra||468||68,403||146.2||Andorra la Vella|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||51,129||4,448,500||77.5||Sarajevo|
|Faroe Islands (Denmark)||1,399||46,011||32.9||Tórshavn|
|Guernsey||78||64,587||828.0||St. Peter Port|
|Isle of Man||572||73,873||129.1||Douglas|
|San Marino||61||27,730||454.6||San Marino|
|Serbia (including Kosovo)||88,361||9,663,742||109.4||Belgrade|
| Svalbard and Jan|
Mayen Islands (Norway)
|Vatican City||0.44||900||2,045.5||Vatican City|
As a continent, the economy of Europe is currently the largest on Earth. As with other continents, Europe has a large variation of wealth among its countries. The richer states tend to be in the West, some of the Eastern economies are still emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The European Union, an intergovernmental body composed of 27 European states, comprises the largest single economic area in the world. Currently, 15 EU countries share the euro as a common currency. Five European countries rank in the top ten of the worlds largest national economies in GDP (PPP). This includes (ranks according to the CIA): Germany (5), the UK (6), Russia (7), France (8), and Italy (10).
European languages mostly fall within three Indo-European language groups: the Romance languages, derived from the Latin language of the Roman Empire; the Germanic languages, whose ancestor language came from southern Scandinavia; and the Slavic languages. While having much of its vocabulary descended from Romance languages, the English language is a Germanic language.
Romance languages are spoken primarily in south-western Europe as well as in Romania and Moldova. Germanic languages are spoken in north-western Europe and some parts of Central Europe. Slavic languages are spoken in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe.
Many other languages outside the three main groups exist in Europe. Other Indo-European languages include the Baltic group (i.e., Latvian and Lithuanian), the Celtic group (i.e., Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton), Greek, Albanian, and Armenian. A distinct group of Uralic languages are Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian, spoken in the respective countries as well as in parts of Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Slovakia. Other Non-Indo-European languages are Basque, Georgian, Azerbaijani, and languages of minority nations in Russia.
Multilingualism and the protection of regional and minority languages are recognized political goals in Europe today. The Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages set up a legal framework for language rights in Europe.
Historically, religion in Europe has been a major influence on European art, culture, philosophy and law. The majority religion in Europe is Christianity and then Islam concentrated mainly in the south west (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo and Turkey). Other religions including Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are minority religions. Europe is a relatively secular continent and has the largest number and proportion of irreligious, agnostic and atheistic people in the Western world, with a particularly high number of self-described non-religious people in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden and France.