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Europe Earth's second smallest continent, comprising the western fifth of the Eurasian landmass. It is separated from Asia by the Urals (e), Caspian Sea and the Caucasus (se), Black Sea and Dardanelles (s), and from Africa by the Mediterranean Sea.


Europe is dominated by the Alpine mountain chain, the principal links of which are the Pyrenees, Alps, Carpathian Mountains, Balkan Mountains and the Caucasus. Between the Scandinavian peninsula and the Alpine chain is the great European plain, which extends from the Atlantic coast in France to the Urals. Much of the plain is fertile farmland. Major islands include the British Isles, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Iceland.

Structure and Geology

Much of n Europe is made up of large sedimentary plains overlying an ancient Precambrian shield, outcrops of which remain in n Scandinavia, Scotland and the Urals. There are also worn-down Palaeozoic highlands. Many upland areas n of the Alps were formed during the Carboniferous period, including Ireland, the moorlands of Devon and Cornwall and the Pennines, England. Southern Europe is geologically younger. Alpine folding began in the Oligocene period. Europe's longest river is the Volga; other major rivers are (from w to e) the Tagus, Loire, Rhône, Rhine, Elbe, and Danube. The Caspian Sea is the world's largest lake.

Climate and Vegetation

Europe's climate varies from subtropical to polar. The Mediterranean climate of the s is dry and warm. Much of the land is scrub (maquis), with some hardwood forests. Further n, the climate is mild and quite humid, moderated by prevailing westerly winds and the Gulf Stream. The natural vegetation is mixed forest, but this has been extensively depleted. Mixed forest merges into boreal forests of conifers. In se European Russia, wooded and grass steppe merge into semidesert to the n of the Caspian Sea. In the far n, lies the tundra.


The Mediterranean region was the cradle of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the Barbarian invasions brought chaos to much of Europe. During the Middle Ages, Christianity was the unifying force throughout the continent. The post-medieval period witnessed the schism in the Catholic Church and the emergence of the nation-state. European powers began to found vast empires in other parts of the globe (see colonialism; imperialism), and the French Revolution ushered in an era of momentous political changes. During the 20th century, a period overshadowed by two World Wars and the rise of communism, Europe began to lose some of its pre-eminence in world affairs. After World War II, the countries of Europe became divided into two ideological blocs: Eastern Europe, dominated by the Soviet Union; and Western Europe, closely aligned with the USA. The rivalry was known as the Cold War. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established to act as a deterrent to the spread of communism; the Warsaw Pact was its e European counterpart. Several economic organizations, in particular the European Community (EC), worked towards closer intra-national cooperation. The collapse of Soviet communism in 1991 added to the momentum for a kind of supranational union in the form of a European Union (EU).


Almost half of European land is unproductive because of climate, relief, soil, or urbanization. A quarter of land is forested; the lumber industry is particularly important in Scandinavia and the mountainous areas of e Europe. Fishing is a major industry in countries with Atlantic or North Sea coastlines. Two-thirds of cultivated land is arable. Cereals are the principal crop: wheat is the most important, replaced by oats in the n, and sometimes by maize in the s. Rice grows with the aid of irrigation. Sheep graze on many upland areas, but dairy farming is by far the most important form of animal husbandry. In Mediterranean areas many fruits, early vegetables and grapevines (mainly for wine) are cultivated. Europe produces more than one-third of the world's coal. Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, and Russia are the leading producers. Other mineral deposits include bauxite, mercury, lead, zinc, and potash. Romania was the largest producer of oil in Europe until North Sea states, especially Britain, began to exploit their resources. Europe is highly industrialized, and manufacturing employs a high proportion of the workforce. The largest industrial areas are in w central Europe, in particular n and ne France, the Ruhr, and around the North Sea ports of Antwerp, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Hamburg. Area c.10.36 million sq km (4 million sq mi) Highest mountain Mount Elbrus (Russia) 5633m (18,481ft) Longest river Volga 3750km (2330mi) Population (2000 est.) 728,887,000 Largest cities Moscow (8,296,000); London (6,966,800); St Petersburg (4,661,000); Berlin (2,392,300) See also articles on individual countries

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Europe (yŏŏr´əp), 6th largest continent, c.4,000,000 sq mi (10,360,000 sq km) including adjacent islands (1992 est. pop. 512,000,000). It is actually a vast peninsula of the great Eurasian land mass. By convention, it is separated from Asia by the Urals and the Ural River in the east; by the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus in the southeast; and by the Black Sea, the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles in the south. The Mediterranean Sea and the Strait of Gibraltar separate it from Africa. Europe is washed in the north by the Arctic Ocean, and in the west by the Atlantic Ocean, with which the North Sea and the Baltic Sea are connected.

Physical Geography

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.


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.


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.

Economy and Transportation

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.

Outline of History

Historical Currents

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); Stephen Usherwood, Europe, Century by Century (1973); T. G. Jordan, The European Culture Area (2d ed. 1988); B. Gwertzman and M. Kaufman, The Collapse of Communism (1990); T. Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (2005); M. E. Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post–Cold War Europe (2009); B. Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy from 1453 to the Present (2013).