Europe makes up the western fifth of the Euraisa landmass. Land relief in Europe shows great variation within relatively small areas. The southern regions 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 Ilberian 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.
Europe lies mainly in the temperature climate zones, being subjected to prevailing westerlies.
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.
The Geology of Europe is hugely varied and complex, and gives rise to the wide variety of landscapes found across the continent, from the Scottish Highlands to the rolling plains of Hungary.
Europe's most significant feature is the dichotomy between highland and mountainous Southern Europe and a vast, partially underwater, northern plain ranging from Ireland in the west to the 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 micro continent 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 the 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 80 to 90 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 is Iceland (1%), while the most forested country is Finland (77%).
In temperate Europe, mixed forest with both broadleaf and conifers 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.
During 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 world, 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.).
European wild cat, foxes (especially the red fox), jackal and different species of martens, hedgehogs, different species of reptiles (like snakes such as vipers and grass snakes) and amphibians, different birds (owls, hawks and other birds of prey).
Important European herbivores are snails, larvae, fish, different birds, and mammals, like rodents, deer and roe deer, boars, and living in the mountains, marmots, stein bocks, chamois among others.
The extinction of the dwarf hippos and dwarf elephants has been linked to the earliest arrival of humans on the islands of the Mediterranean.
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, mollusk, echinoderm, different crustacean, squids, and octopuses, fish, dolphins, and whales.
Biodiversity is protected in Europe through the Council of Europe's Bern Convention, which has also been signed by the European Community as well as non-European states.
Since the Renaissance, Europe has had a major influence in culture, economics and social movements in the world. The most significant inventions had their origins in the Western world, primarily Europe and the United States. In 1900, Europe's share of the world's population was 25%. Approximately 70 million Europeans died through war, violence and famine between 1914 and 1945. Some current and past issues in European demographics have included religious emigration, race relations, economic 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. Abortion remains illegal on the island of Malta where Catholicism is the state religion. Furthermore, three European countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland) and the Autonomous Community of Adalusia (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. Among the continents, Europe has a relatively high population density, second only to Asia. The most densely populated country in Europe is the Netherlands, ranking third in the world after Bangladesh and South Korea. Pan and Pfeil (2004) count 87 distinct "peoples of Europe", of which 33 form the majority population in at least one sovereign state, while the remaining 54 constitute ethnic minorities. According to UN population projection, Europe's population may fall to about 7% of world population by 2050, or 653 million people (medium variant, 556 to 777 million in low and high variants, respectively). Within this context, significant disparities exist between regions 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 Europe. The UN predicts the steady population decline of vast areas of Eastern Europe. Russia's population is declining by at least 700,000 people each year. The country now has 13,000 uninhabited villages.
Europe is home to the highest number of migrants of all global regions at 70.6 million people, the IOM's report said. 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. The European Union plans to open the job centres for legal migrant workers from Africa. In 2008, 696,000 persons were given citizenship of an EU27 member state, a decrease from 707,000 the previous year. The largest groups that acquired citizenship of an EU member state were citizens of Morocco, Turkey, Ecuador, Algeria and Iraq.
Emigration from Europe began with Spanish settlers in the 16th century, and French and English settlers in the 17th century. But numbers remained relatively small until waves of mass emigration in the 19th century, when millions of poor families left Europe.
Today, large populations of European descent are found on every continent. European ancestry predominates in North America, and to a lesser degree in South America. Australia and New Zealand have large European derived populations. Africa has no countries with European-derived majorities, but there are significant minorities, such as the White South Africans. In Asia, European-derived populations predominate in Northern Asia, some parts of Northern Kazakhstan and Israel. Additionally, transcontinental and geographically Asian countries such as Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus and Turkey have populations historically closely related to Europeans, with considerable genetic and cultural affinity.
European languages mostly fall within three Indo-European language groups: the Romance languages, derived from the Latin of the Roman Empire; the Germanic languages, whose ancestor language came from southern Scandinavia; and the Slavic languages;
Romance languages are spoken primarily in south-western Europe as well as in Romania and Moldova, in Central or Eastern Europe. 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, the Celtic group, Greek, Armenian, and Albanian. In addition, a distinct group of Uralic languages is spoken mainly in Estonia, Finland, and Hungary, while Kartvelian languages, are spoken primarily in Georgia. Maltese is the only Semitic language that is official within the EU, while Basque is the only European language isolate. Turkic languages include Azerbaijani and Turkish, in addition to the languages of minority nations in Russia.
Historically, religion in Europe has been a major influence on European art, culture, philosophy, and law. The largest religion in Europe is Christianity as practiced by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Churches. Following these is Islam concentrated mainly in the south east , and Tibetan Buddhism, found in Kalmykia. Other religions including Judaism and Hinduism are minority religions. Europe is a relatively secular continent and has an increasing number and proportion of irreligious, agnostic, and atheistic people, actually the largest in the Western world, with a particularly high number of self-described non-religious people in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, Germany (East), and France.