Poland: Physical Landscapes

A country’s physical environment can offer opportunities and challenges to its people. Poland’s natural conditions are no exception. Nature provides the canvas upon which people paint their own unique cultural landscapes—­the human imprint on Earth’s surface. People are guided by their particular needs, as well as by the financial and technological resources they command. The outcome is the result of three factors that are universals in the nature-culture equation. First, humans adapt culturally in various ways to the environments in which they live. Second, they use the land and other resources to provide for their material needs. Finally, humans change the environments in which they live through their various activities.


You may have heard the phrase, common to real estate and many other economic activities, “location, location, location.” To a geographer, location—­position on Earth’s surface—­is of great importance.

Historians think in terms of time, or when things happened; geographers, on the other hand, think spatially, or about where things are and why their location is important. Poland lies in north-central Europe in a position roughly midway across the North European Plain, connecting the vast lowland’s western and eastern regions. Not counting portions of Ukraine and southern Russia, this is the largest expanse of flatland in Europe. It extends from the North Sea’s shores in Germany and the Netherlands to the marshland and forests of Lithuania and Belarus. Poland’s northern boundaries are defined by the Baltic Sea’s accessible shoreline that spreads from the Pomeranian Bay in the northwest to the Gulf of Gdansk in the east. The Baltic Sea, a major gulf of the Atlantic Ocean, has never been a difficult physical barrier to the people who live in this area. In fact, it has often served as a waterway to connect central and eastern portions of Europe with the Scandinavian Peninsula. Thus, even today, Poles perceive access to the Baltic Sea as their most direct link to the rest of the world.

The northern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains form Poland’s southern boundary with Slovakia. These mountains, which were uplifted during the same geological period as the Alps and the Pyrenees, helped define Europe’s natural and cultural barriers. They spread in an east-west direction and separate Poland from the Hungarian plains in the south. Eventually, they extend to Romania and the lower Danube area. The major branch of the Carpathians that penetrates Polish territory is known as the Beskids. Their average elevation is lower than that of the Alps, with heights reaching barely over 8,000 feet (2,600 meters) above sea level. Tatra’s Rysy is the country’s highest peak, reaching an elevation of 8,199 feet (2,499 meters).

In the southwest, elevation decreases as mountain peaks gradually give way to the hilly countryside of Sudetenland. Between these hills and intersecting river valleys spreads the demarcation line between Poland and the Czech Republic. Rivers on the Czech side slowly flow toward the south, until they reach the Black Sea. A few others meander northward into the Baltic Sea. One of the streams that flows northward, the Odra (Oder in German), takes over from the Nysa Luzycka (Neisse in German) River and becomes the boundary between Poland and Germany.

The country’s current boundaries became final only recently, in the aftermath of World War II. For decades, Poland—­a victim of European geopolitics—­bordered only three countries: the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic (formerly East Germany). Although the political boundaries remain identical today, those three countries have disappeared into the dustbin of history. East Germany reunited with West Germany to become simply Germany, Czechoslovakia separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the former Soviet Union’s 15 republics each became an independent country. Poland’s eastern boundary, once shared with the Soviets, now faces four different countries. The longest borders are with Ukraine and Belarus, whereas a somewhat narrow corridor connects Poland with Lithuania. Finally, tucked in between Poland and Lithuania is a territory of the former Eastern Prussia that Soviet Union annexed in 1945.

A vast majority of Poland’s landmass extends between the 50th and 55th parallels. This is quite far north: by comparison, it is farther from the equator than all of the lower 48 U.S. states. Warsaw’s latitude is comparable to that of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada’s northernmost large city.


Poland’s land features are largely the product of ancient tectonic movements and more recent climatic changes. Age is represented in geological terms, which means that periods are measured in millions of years. The most recent orogenesis (the process of mountain formation) began at the end of the Jurassic Period, approximately 60 million years ago, and continues slowly. Known as the Alpine Orogenesis, it was the force behind the formation of the mountains in southern Poland.

Much of the land surface, especially in the northeast and north, was affected by the advancement of continental glaciers during the Pleistocene Period (Ice Age) of the past 2 million years. The advance and retreat of huge sheets of glacial ice created a landscape that resembles that of northern Minnesota. First, the force of slow-moving ice scours the land and pushes debris southward. Then, when the climate changes, glaciers melt and fill the ice-scoured depressions to form lakes. Today, thousands of lakes, many of which are shallow and surrounded by marsh or forest, dominate the landscape of northeastern Poland’s Masurian Lakes District. Moving westward along the northern plains, similar physical landscapes extend to near the Pomeranian Bay. Most natural lakes in this part of Poland, however, are smaller than the Masurian Lakes.

Except in the southern mountainous areas, Poland’s elevation is relatively low. The average elevation is about 500 feet (150 meters) above sea level; the lowest point is 2 feet, or less than 1 meter, below sea level. In the Warsaw-Szczecin-Gdansk triangle, elevation is barely above sea level. Yet, although differences in total elevation are minimal, northern Poland’s physical landscape still displays interesting variations. The impact from moving glaciers has created a rolling landscape that features low hills and scattered lakes.

Because the land slopes downward from south to north, most of Poland’s rivers flow in a northwesterly direction before merging with larger streams or draining into the Baltic Sea. Low elevation and meandering streams are a recipe for potential environmental difficulties. Rivers have carved plains that are widely used for various types of agriculture. Floodplains also are densely settled. In the spring, when melting snow suddenly contributes to a drastic increase in volume, many of the rivers spill over their banks and flood the surrounding countryside, with unpleasant consequences.

The Baltic Sea coast seems a monotonous zone of transition from land to sea. Several hundred miles of coast lack islands, and there are only a few natural indentations, or inlets. The Gulf of Gdansk is Poland’s only true natural harbor. Moreover, the sandy soils of the coastal zone are a relatively inhospitable environment that offers little economic opportunity. As a result, much of Poland’s settlement and cultural development has occurred inland, rather than along the shores of the Baltic.


Considering Poland’s northerly position (poleward of 50° north latitude), one might assume that the country’s climate would be similar to that of Canada’s Prairie Provinces. There, winters are harsh and summers short. Unlike interior Canada, however, Poland enjoys the luxury of the Atlantic Ocean’s strong influence on European climate. It manages to escape the reccurring blizzards and prolonged periods of extremely low temperatures that often overwhelm neighboring Ukraine or Russia. Warmer air with higher moisture content penetrates eastward and balances the impact of cold, dry air from Siberia. This manages to protect Poland from bone-chilling Russian-type winters. Similarly, because of this maritime influence, summer and early fall may bring prolonged periods of precipitation, including occasional strong storms, .

Poland’s climate classification is relatively simple. Central and west Poland are exposed to a warm, temperate marine climate with humid summers. In late spring and early summer, the North Atlantic system of high atmospheric pressure expands and heavily influences much of the European landmass. Westerly winds (winds that blow from areas of high to low atmospheric pressure) then bring the shift in weather patterns over central parts of Europe. By July, much of Poland begins to receive substantial amounts of rain. At this time of year, a couple of months after the initial flood threat from melting snow, the rivers again expand in volume and revive the threat of floods. Cracow, located near the threshold of the Carpathians, records higher rainfall in summer than Warsaw, Gdansk, or Poznan. July temperatures average about 70° to 75° Fahrenheit (21° to 23° Celsius). Summer rains, although potentially troublesome for settlements located near rivers, are an enormous boost for Poland’s agriculture. In North America, only a small area of coastal British Columbia has this type of climate.

Much of Poland east of Warsaw experiences a warm summer continental climate. The main difference from the temperate marine climate is the weaker maritime influence from the Atlantic Ocean during winter months. This is exemplified by lower precipitation in southeastern Poland between December and March, compared to the country’s west and northwest.

Moist, mild Atlantic air masses are unable to penetrate the area. The result is less precipitation and colder temperatures that reach below freezing. Areas of Poland located near the border with Ukraine and Belarus, for example, may experience long periods of low temperatures, but with little snow on the ground. Snow, in fact, contributes to the cooling of an atmosphere through its ability to reflect potentially warming incoming solar radiation back into the atmosphere.

Every so often, an air mass off the Atlantic reaches the area. Temperatures increase slightly, and snowstorms occur. After a few days, however, these conditions are replaced by cold, dry Siberian air that may allow the snow to remain for weeks, or even months. Snow does not melt, radiation of sunlight (albedo) helps lower air temperatures, and people increase their consumption of hot tea and coffee and patiently wait for spring.


Vegetation plays a significant role in the natural environment because it is the product of climate. When Russian scientist Wladimir (Vladimir) Köppen designed his widely applied climate classification system, he used vegetation as the primary indicator of variations in climatic zones. An area predominantly covered with grasses, for example, represented one type of climate.

A tropical rain forest was assigned a different climatic category, and so forth. Climatic variations in such elements as temperature, growing season, and precipitation directly influence the density and spatial extent of ground cover.

The geographic distribution of Poland’s natural vegetation falls into several categories. Coniferous forest dominates the northern third of the country, accounting for most of the forest cover. Species such as beech, birch, spruce, pine, and larch spread through the countryside in the area near the Baltic Sea.

The forest extends from Poland’s borders with Belarus and Lithuania, through the slightly elevated countryside southwest of Gdansk, and finally reaches the German border south of Szczecin. Evenly distributed annual precipitation, relatively high humidity, and low temperatures have created conditions for this type of forest and its species.

In many places, only short stretches of sandy beaches separate the sea and forest, although patches of forest do not extend far inland. As recently as the 1700s, one could travel all over Europe without exiting forested areas, yet this is no longer the case. Throughout much of the continent, old forests began to disappear centuries ago. In Poland, as elsewhere, human activities have taken over the once dominant forests.

Agriculture, in particular, has altered the vegetative landscape. Farming accounts for a substantial amount of Poland’s economic output, and vast areas of forest were cleared to create farmland suitable for growing crops. Population growth and the expansion of settlements also contributed to a shrinkage of the country’s forests.

Much of the forest that’s been preserved in western Poland lies between Szczecin and the Czech Republic border. Even here, woodlands are intersected with agriculturally productive river valleys. In southern Poland, especially the region surrounding Cracow and Katowice, urbanization, industry, and agriculture have pushed forested areas toward higher elevations in the Carpathian Mountains. In addition, this corner of Poland has long been the most densely populated part of the country. To visit a forested landscape not markedly changed by human activity, one must travel to the Tatras and other mountains in Poland’s borderlands with Slovakia.

Central Poland has only limited areas of forest, much of which is now protected by the government. This part of Poland’s physical landscape has been heavily modified by human activity. Grasslands and cultivated land are the main features, with many cities and towns scattered about the landscape.

The use of river valleys—­especially those of the Vistula—for grain cultivation and livestock pastures has contributed to extensive deforestation. So, too, has a thriving timber-cutting industry. What has diminished the country’s forests follows a pattern common to most European countries; it is not unique to Poland.

In terms of ecosystems, though, Poland is unique in that it has small areas that include some of Europe’s oldest primeval forests. These preserved woodlands were established soon after the glaciers retreated at the end of the Ice Age, some 12,000 to 8,000 years ago.

Grasslands predominantly cover areas deemed unsuitable for productive cultivation. Many of these areas are transitional stretches between forests and wetlands or on elevated mountain slopes. They are used to pasture livestock or, where suitable, for crop production. About two-thirds of the country’s grasslands remain as meadows and pastures.


Soils in Poland, as elsewhere, are largely the product of climatic conditions and their associated vegetation cover. At the end of the Ice Age, temperatures increased while glaciers retreated and created a tundra-like environment. In early soils, which contained little organic material, coniferous forests gradually were established. The natural decay of trees and their trunks, roots, and leaves, combined with natural and human-induced fires, created gray and brown soils. Deciduous forests eventually developed on brown soils and on alluvial soils near riverbeds.

Chernozem, or the rich black soil, covers only one percent of the country. Considered the world’s most agriculturally productive soil because of its high content of organic material, chernozem exists only in a small area of southeastern Poland.


Despite the estimated 10,000 lakes that exist in Poland, the main source of fresh water for consumption and irrigation is from watersheds of the Vistula and Odra river systems. The Vistula, in particular, is the backbone of Poland. Its headwaters are in the Carpathian Mountains, just north of the border with Slovakia and the Czech Republic. From there, it crisscrosses the country and connects most vital urban and industrial centers. First, it reaches Cracow-Katowice, Poland’s leading industrial region, and then continues north toward the capital city. The Vistula joins the Bug River and its tributaries in the vicinity of Warsaw, where it expands in volume. It is here that the true flatlands begin, including the broad floodplain of the Vistula. From Warsaw to Gdansk, the river continues through several larger cities—­
first flowing westward and then sharply turning northward—­until it finally flows into the Baltic Sea.

The Odra River plays a similar role in the southwestern and western parts of the country. Its headwaters, as well, are in the southern mountains, not far from those of the Vistula. This is another reminder of how—­despite accounting for less than 2 percent of the country’s landmass—­mountains play a crucial role in Poland’s contemporary physical and cultural geography.

They prevent many streams from being diverted southward toward the Danube’s watershed and the Black Sea. In addition, almost all major industrial centers are located on or near the watershed of either the Vistula or the Odra.

After entering Poland, the Odra continues toward Wroclav, the leading industrial city in the southwest. By the time it reaches the Pomeranian Bay on the Baltic Sea, the river’s watershed includes almost all of the streams in the western part of the country. Its main tributary, the Varta, contributes most of the central region’s water.


Poland shares many environmental concerns with other developed countries in Western Europe. Rapid industrial development during the twentieth century has generated visible scars on the natural environment. Industrialization accelerated the shift from a dominantly rural to a predominantly urban society. Cities expanded rapidly in terms of both their spatial distribution and population growth. These factors contributed to an increase in air, ground, and water pollution.

During the Communist era, economic growth was held to be of much greater importance than protecting the natural environment. As a result, environmental regulations were lax and seldom enforced. Totalitarian governments rarely allow watchdog organizations to control or even influence governmental institutions; they view any criticism as an attempt to destabilize the government.

Because industrial operations were nationalized (stateowned), the government exercised full control over all environment-related issues. It established very few environmental safeguards during this period, which resulted in a marked deterioration of environmental quality. (It should be noted that environmental protection and quality has only recently become a worldwide concern.) Tall chimneys that belched black smoke were seen as a symbol of economic progress. Pollution from the industrial centers of Silesia and Sudetenland was considered a sign that the country was on the path to join the economically developed world. Later, membership in the European Union (EU) required changes in attitude and laws. Beginning in the 1990s, it became clear that Poland had to make a transition from the old system to the more rigorous program of environmental protection and preservation. The southern borderlands, the area hardest hit by industry-generated pollution, required extensive cleanup activity. As one of the largest coal mining centers in Europe for several centuries, Silesia and its cities were among the most polluted areas on the continent. Despite the importance of coal as the bedrock of the national economy (domestic extractions of oil and gas are minimal), the latest records show vast reductions in the emission of pollutants. In 2002, Poland ratified the Kyoto Protocol, a global treaty on carbon dioxide reduction. At the time, the country promised to further reduce its output of environmentally damaging gases.

A high volume of pollutants delivered by the Vistula and Odra rivers has affected the Baltic Sea’s water quality. In fact, for years this body of water was among the most environmentally damaged in Europe. On a map, you will notice that the Baltic Sea is nearly surrounded by land. The Skagerrak and Kattegat straits that connect the Baltic to the Atlantic Ocean are narrow, thereby isolating the Baltic from ocean currents and a rapid turnover of water. Under these conditions, most water reaches the sea from polluted rivers. This contamination has had a strongly negative effect on local marine ecosystems. A growing awareness of the Baltic Sea’s declining health finally led to action. Today, Poland actively participates in an environmental agreement signed by countries surrounding the Baltic. This cooperative venture has led to major improvements in pollution control and water quality.

Not all of Poland’s environmental problems are homemade. As noted in the discussion on climate, air masses arriving from the west not only affect the country’s daily weather conditions, but also bring atmospheric pollutants that originate in Western Europe’s industrial regions. These pollutants, in turn, have had a severe effect on Poland’s ecosystems. Summer downpours bring more than flooding; for many years, pollution created in the United Kingdom, Germany, and other Western European countries contributed to the occurrence of acid rain in eastern European countries. Forests, in particular, were severely damaged.

About one percent of Poland’s territory is public land reserved within a system of protected zones, nature reserves, and national parks. Since the early 1920s, when the first natural park was established, the amount of protected land has continuously increased. Future goals include the expansion of national parks and, possibly, the creation of new parks.

The emphasis in park creation will be on the preservation of primeval forests and animal species. Spatial distribution ranges from coastal parks in the Baltic Sea area to the jewels of nature in the Carpathian Tatra Mountains. Bialowieza National Park, in northeastern Poland, serves as one of the last sanctuaries for the European bison. This animal, which once roamed freely throughout much of Europe, is now found only in Poland and a few surrounding countries. Facing extinction, but bred in captivity in the hope of saving the species, the first bison were reintroduced to Bialowieza in 1952. Since then, the numbers of this magnificent animal, Europe’s largest mammal, have steadily increased to more than 1,000 head.