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.
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
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.
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).