The geological underpinning of Europe includes, from north to south, an ancient mass of stable, crystalline rocks; a broad belt of relatively level sedimentary materials; a zone of mixed geological structures created by folding, faulting, and volcanism; and a region of comparatively recent mountain-building activity. This geological pattern has helped create the numerous natural regions that make up the landscape of Europe. The Fenno-Scandian Shield, formed during Precambrian time, underlies Finland and most of the rest of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Tilted toward the east, it forms both the mountains of western Sweden and the lower plateau of Finland. Glaciation carved the deep fjords of the Norwegian coast and scoured the surface of the Finnish plateau. The movement of a segment of the Earth’s crust against the stable shield during the Caledonian orogeny raised the mountains of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and western Norway. Subsequent erosion has rounded and worn down these mountains in the British Isles, but the peaks of Norway still reach 2,472 m.
The second major geological region, a belt of sedimentary materials, sweeps in an arc from southwestern France northward and eastward through the Low Countries, Germany, Poland, and into western Russia. It also includes a part of southeastern England. Although warped in places to form basins, such as the London Basin and the Paris Basin, these sedimentary rocks, covered by a layer of glacially deposited debris, are generally level enough to form the Great European Plain. Some of the best soils of Europe are found on the plain, particularly along its southern margin, where windborne material called loess has been deposited. The plain is widest in the east. South of the Great European Plain, a band of dissimilar geological structures sweeps across Europe, creating the most intricate landscapes of the continent - the Central European Uplands. Throughout this region the forces of folding, faulting, volcanism, and uplift have interacted to create alternating mountains, plateaus, and valleys. The major European natural province farthest to the south is also the most recently formed. In mid-Tertiary time, about 40 million years ago, the Afro-Arabian plate collided with the Eurasian one, triggering the Alpine Orogeny. Compressional forces generated by the collision thrust upward great thicknesses of Mesozoic sediment, creating ranges such as the Pyrenees, Alps, Apennines, Carpathians, and Caucasus, which are not only the highest mountains of Europe but also the most steep sided. The frequent occurrence of earthquakes in this region indicates that changes are still taking place. Although much of Europe lies in the northern latitudes, the relatively warm seas that border the continent give most of central and western Europe a moderate climate, with cool winters and mild summers. The prevailing westerly winds, warmed in part by passing over the North Atlantic Drift ocean current, bring precipitation throughout most of the year. In the Mediterranean climate area - Spain, Italy, and Greece - the summer months are usually hot and dry, with almost all rainfall occurring in winter. From approximately central Poland eastward, the moderating effects of the seas are reduced, and consequently cooler, drier conditions prevail. The northern parts of the continent also have this type of climate. Most of Europe receives 500 to 1,500 mm of precipitation per year.
Although much of Europe, particularly the west, was originally covered by forest, the vegetation has been transformed by human habitation and the clearing of land. Only in the most northerly mountains and in parts of north central European Russia has the forest cover been relatively unaffected by human activity. On the other hand, a considerable amount of Europe is covered by woodland that has been planted or has reoccupied cleared lands. The largest vegetation zone in Europe, cutting across the middle portion of the continent from the Atlantic to the Urals, is a belt of mixed deciduous and coniferous trees - oak, maple, and elm intermingled with pine and fir. The Arctic coastal regions of northern Europe and the upper slopes of its highest mountains are characterized by tundra vegetation, which consists mostly of lichens, mosses, shrubs, and wild flowers. The milder, but nevertheless cool temperatures of inland northern Europe create an environment favorable to a continuous cover of coniferous trees, especially spruce and pine, although birch and aspen also occur. Much of the Great European Plain is covered with prairies, areas of relatively tall grasses, and Ukraine is characterized by steppe, a flat and comparatively dry region with short grasses. Lands bordering the Mediterranean are noted for their fruit, especially olives, citrus fruit, figs, apricots, and grapes. At one time Europe was home to large numbers of a wide variety of animals, such as deer, moose, bison, boar, wolf, and bear. Because humans have occupied or developed so much of Europe, however, many species of animals have either become extinct or been greatly reduced in number. Today, deer, moose, wolf, and bear can be found in the wild state in significant numbers only in northern Scandinavia and Russia and in the Balkan Peninsula. Elsewhere they exist mainly in protected preserves. Reindeer are herded by the Saami of the far north. Chamois and ibex are found in the higher elevations of the Pyrenees and Alps. Europe still has many smaller animals, such as weasel, ferret, hare, rabbit, hedgehog, lemming, fox, and squirrel. The large number of birds indigenous to Europe include eagle, falcon, finch, nightingale, owl, pigeon, sparrow, and thrush. Storks are thought to bring good luck to the houses on which they nest, particularly in the Low Countries, and swans ornament many European rivers and lakes. Scottish, Irish, and Rhine salmon are prized fish here, and in the coastal marine waters are found a large variety of fish, including the commercially important cod, mackerel, herring, and tuna. The Black and Caspian seas contain sturgeon, the source of caviar. Farming in Europe is generally of the mixed type, in which a variety of crops and animal products are produced in the same region. The European portion of the former USSR is one of the few large regions where one-product agriculture predominates. The Mediterranean nations maintain a distinctive type of agriculture, dominated by the production of wheat, olives, grapes, and citrus fruit. In most of these countries farming plays a more important role in the national economy than in the northern countries. Throughout much of western Europe dairying and meat production are major activities. To the east, crops become more important. In the nations of the Balkan Peninsula, crops account for some 60 percent of agricultural production, and in Ukraine, wheat production overshadows all other agriculture. Europe as a whole is particularly noted for its great output of wheat, barley, oats, rye, corn, potatoes, beans, peas, and sugar beets. Besides dairy and beef cattle, large numbers of pigs, sheep, goats, and poultry are raised by Europeans. In the late 20th century Europe was self-sufficient in most basic farm products. On most farmland advanced agricultural techniques, including the application of modern machinery and chemical fertilizers, were used, but in parts of southern and southeastern Europe, traditional, relatively inefficient techniques were still dominant. For much of the period when the Communists held power, agriculture in the countries of the Eastern bloc (with the exception of Poland and Yugoslavia) and the USSR was based on large, state-owned farms and state-dominated collectives. Europe consumes great quantities of energy. The leading energy sources are coal (including lignite), petroleum, natural gas, nuclear power, and waterpower. Norway, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and Spain all have major hydroelectric installations, which contribute large portions of the annual output of electricity. Nuclear power is important in France; Britain; Germany; Belgium; Lithuania, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics; Sweden; Switzerland; Finland; and Bulgaria.