World Regional Geography: European Region


  Physical Geography of Europe

Climate Classification   European Region
Environmental Issues   Human Geography

Europe is well defined by water to the north, west, and south. The eastern boundary does not have any physical barrier since the North European lowland is simply renamed the Russian Plain across the Russian border.


This lack of a physical protective barrier between Russia and the rest of Europe  has played an important historical role. Napoleon and Hitler both easily marched armies across this plain to attack Russia. This physical and historical geography helps explain the former Soviet Union's desire to have a line of buffer states under its control between Russia and Europe. These buffer states are "eastern" Europe. The Soviet Union greatly feared invasion from the West.

Climate Classification

The most important feature of European physical geography is its mild Cfb climate that is a temperate mid latitude climate. Note that most of Europe is north of New York City. Why isn't most of Europe cold like Canada or Russia or Siberia?

The orientation of mountains in Europe is east-west, not north-south as is the case along the Pacific rim of the Americas. Thus the mountains do not block the westerly flow of warm moist air onto the European continent as they do in North and South America. In the Americas, the mid latitude westerly winds must be lifted over the mountains to get to the interior. Rising air cools and cooling air can't hold as much water so the west sides of the mountains are wet and there is a rain shadow on the eastern side of the mountains. There is no rain shadow effect in Europe because of the orientation of the mountains.

 These prevailing westerly winds also tend to prevent bitterly cold arctic air from penetrating into Europe. Instead, polar air sweeps into Russia, which does experience bitterly cold winters.  Only occasionally, due to changes in jet stream currents, does arctic air penetrate all the way to the Mediterranean.  Europe is dominated by milder maritime air from the Atlantic instead of the frigid polar air of the Arctic.


Also the North Atlantic gyre brings warm moist air and water far to the north making ocean temperatures warmer than you would expect at this latitude. Air and water is warmed as it moves along the equator in the tropical Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Stream (picture above at right) the North Atlantic drift currents bring warm moist air to the British Isles, Scandinavia, and even into the Arctic Ocean where the Russia port of Murmansk remains open in the winter, albeit with ice breaker help, despite being located above the Arctic Circle.) 

The relatively warm water of the North Atlantic Drift warms the air masses that flow into Europe from the west and provides moisture and atmospheric instability that gives much of Europe beneficial precipitation. European climate is much milder than it would otherwise be if the currents flowed somewhere else.

The other dominant climate in Europe is the Mediterranean (Csa, Csb).  This climate covers much of Southern Europe including most of the Iberian Peninsula, Southern France, Southern Italy and Greece.  It is characterized by hot, nearly rainless summers, and mild rainy winters.  It makes for highly productive agriculture where the soil is adequate.  For those of you who have not traveled to the Mediterranean the Csa climates are like California.

Environmental Issues