Although much of Europe-particularly the west-originally was covered by forest, natural vegetation patterns have been transformed by direct human interference through the clearing of land for agriculture and urbanization. Only in the most northerly mountains and in parts of northern and central European Russia has the forest cover been relatively unaffected by human activity. A considerable amount of the continent, however, 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 interspersed with pine, fir, and spruce). 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, herbs, and shrubs. The milder but still cool temperatures of the inland parts of northern Europe create an environment favorable to a continuous cover of coniferous trees-especially spruce and pine, although birch and aspen also occur (Larsen, 1980). Much of the Great European Plain is covered with prairies-areas of relatively tall grasses. Further to the east, Ukraine is characterized by steppe-a flat and comparatively dry region with short grasses. The Mediterranean regions are covered by vegetation that has adapted to generally dry and warm conditions; natural vegetation tends to be more sparse in the southern and eastern reaches of the Mediterranean basin, reflecting regional differences in precipitation and temperature regimes.
At one time Europe was home to a large variety of wild mammals, including deer, elk, bison, boar, wolf, and bear. Many species of animals have become extinct or have been greatly reduced in number. Today, deer, elk, wolf, and bear occur in the wild in significant numbers only in northern Fennoscandia and Russia, as well as the Balkan Peninsula. Elsewhere, they exist mainly in protected preserves. Indigenous mountain animals have survived human encroachment on their habitats (to some extent); chamois and ibex are found in the higher elevations of the Pyrenees and Alps. Europe still has many smaller mammals and contains many indigenous bird species.
Europe has the highest overall population density of all the continents. The most heavily populated area includes a belt originating in England and continuing eastward through Belgium and the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and into the European part of Russia. Northern Italy also has a high population density. The average annual growth rate for the European population during the 1980s was only about 0.3%; by comparison, in the same period, the population of Asia grew by about 1.8% per year and that of North America by about 0.9% annually. At the same time, wide variations in growth rate occurred from country to country in Europe. For instance, during the late 1980s, Albania had a yearly growth rate close to 1.9% and Spain about 0.5%, while the population of Great Britain did not change appreciably, and that of Germany declined slightly (particularly in the former East Germany). The overall slow rate of population increase in the latter half of the 20th century has been the result primarily of a low birth rate.
Europeans generally enjoy some of the longest average life expectancies at birth: 75 years in most countries, compared with less than 60 years in India and most countries of Africa.
Europe does not have a homogeneous pattern of wealth and economic development. Western and northern Europe have some of the highest standards of living in the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, life expectancy, literacy rate, level of health care, or other common criteria. The standard of living in southern Europe today is close to that in most western European countries. The new democracies of eastern Europe face major economic difficulties related to the rapid transition from the planned economies that prevailed into the early 1990s to the free-market economies of today; the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary have been most successful in the transition to a free-market economy. Certain republics of the former Yugoslavia and Albania remain in political turmoil, which has severely damaged the national economies of these countries. The emerging republics of the former Soviet Union-such as the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation-are experiencing economic difficulties following the collapse of industrial production and guaranteed markets in the former Eastern Bloc. GDP per capita ranges from close to US$40,000 per annum in Switzerland and Luxemburg to less than US$1,000 per annum in Albania and Macedonia. The countries of western Europe have a high level of supranational organization-with institutions such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Free Trade Association, and the European Union (EU). With the recent fall of communism, eastern European institutions have ceased to exist or have become ineffective, and most countries in this region now seek to join western institutions.
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