Germany: Physical Landscapes

Germany has an area of 137,847 square miles (357,021 square kilometers). It stretches about 520 miles (840 kilometers) north to south, reaching from 47 to 55 degrees north latitude, and 385 miles (620 kilometers) east to west, between 6 and 15 degrees east longitude. The terrain can be divided into three regions that increase in elevation from north to south. Each is unique in terms of natural resources and human activities.

Germany has 1,485 miles (2,389 kilometers) of coastline facing the North Sea to the west and Baltic Sea to the east. A break in the coast is created by the Jutland Peninsula, which predominantly belongs to Denmark (although the southern half of the peninsula is occupied by the German state of Schleswig-­Holstein). The two seas are connected south of the peninsula by the Kiel Canal. Germany has a 12-mile territorial water limit and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, which represent a mutually agreed upon international standard. Because of the shape of the coastline and the proximity to other countries, however, the actual area claimed is quite small.

The coastline is generally low lying with sandy beaches and marshlands. In the summer, the beaches of both the North and Baltic seas are popular holiday destinations. Shrimp and mussels abound in the mudflats and tidal waters along parts of the coast. In some areas, marshes have been reclaimed, similar to the polder lands of the Netherlands. These areas provide rich pastureland and a landscape of dairy farms and fields of vegetables. Other low coastal areas contain peat bogs. Peat is primarily made up of moss, which can be spread on lawns and gardens to improve growth, or dried and burned as a fuel. Where peat has been removed, a landscape of shallow ponds is created.


South of the Baltic and North sea coastlines is the low, gently rolling North German Plain. This almost featureless landscape is part of the huge North European Plain, which extends westward to the Pyrenees Mountains, through the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, and eastward through Poland, Belarus, and Russia to the Ural Mountains.

Five northwardflowing rivers cross the plain. From west to east, they are the Rhine, Ems, Weser, Elbe, and Oder. The Rhine is the largest of these rivers. Beginning in Switzerland, it flows through Germany and into the Netherlands, reaching the North Sea at Rotterdam, the world's busiest seaport. The Ems, a shorter river, reaches the North Sea at Emden. Germany's largest fishing port, Bremerhaven, is located at the mouth of the Weser. The larger city of Bremen is farther downstream. The city of Hamburg, with a population of 2 million, is a port near the mouth of the Elbe River. The Oder forms the boundary between Germany and Poland and empties into the Baltic Sea. The mouth of the river is in Poland.

Regions near the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea experience a maritime climate. Winds blowing from the west, having passed over warm water, have a moderating effect. Summers average 61°F (16°C) and winter snow lasts for only short periods. Unpleasant weather can occur when winter storms move in from the east, often causing freezing rain. This happens when cold air masses from Siberia expand southward during wintertime and clash with moist Atlantic air over Germany. Moving away from the North Sea to the south and east, the climate becomes less maritime and more continental, with warmer summers and colder winters. The Rhine River usually remains largely ice-free, but the Elbe River often freezes in winter. Most of the lowland area receives between 20 and 30 inches (50 and 75 centimeters) of precipitation per year.

Continental glaciation, the advance of huge ice masses during the ice age, has left deposits of clay, gravel, and sand across the plain, which accounts for the soil's limited fertility. The natural vegetation across the North German Plain would be deciduous forest; however, most of this woodland has been removed to clear land for farming during the past 1,000 years.

Going back into time, large areas of Europe were covered by dense forest. One could enter the forest in Portugal and walk through dense stands of trees all the way to Germany and on into Russia without ever leaving it, but that is no longer possible. Nowadays, here, as throughout the remainder of Germany, most woodlands are in areas that are protected or marked by rugged terrain. The modern landscape is one of pasturelands and grain crops. Barley is grown along the Baltic Coast, oats near the North Sea, and rye farther inland. Potatoes are another traditional crop. However, due to modern agricultural methods, the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, and improved hybrid strains that mature during a shorter growing season, many farmers have changed to corn, which is a more valuable crop.

Grains are grown to feed animals, and herds of sheep or cattle have traditionally grazed among the fields of this landscape. Livestock herding can only be done, however, where the quality of the soil provides sufficient grass and grains upon which the stock can feed. Today, most chickens, pigs, and cattle are raised in large barns and provided with grain to eat. They do not go outside to graze. This means that there is no longer a close link between agriculture and soil quality, and farm animals are less often seen when traveling in the countryside.

When the glaciers retreated around 10,000 years ago, they left gravel ridges, called moraines, which spread east to west across the plain. Examination of the main rivers on a map reveals that although they generally run south to north, most turn sharply to either the east or west as they pass through the valleys between the moraines. Today, these portions of the rivers are connected by the Mittelland Canal, which runs east to west across the North German Plain. The cities of Essen, Hanover, and Berlin are on the canal. The sedimentary rock beneath the North German Plain holds some natural gas and oil deposits. These are found north of the Mittelland Canal and contribute to Germany's petrochemical industry.

Along the southern margin of the plain, loess (windblown silt) deposits create extremely fertile soils that support sugar beets, wheat, and corn. About a third of Germany's land is suitable for raising crops and another 15 percent is meadow or pastureland. The cities of Cologne, Dusseldorf, Essen, Hanover, Leipzig, and Dresden dot the southern edge of the North German Plain. These cities provide access to both the best agricultural land of the plain and the forest and mineral resources of the uplands to the south. All of these cities have populations between 500,000 and one million people, making the landscape different from either France or Poland, where only one city—Paris and Warsaw, respectively—dominates the urban structure. Fruits, vegetables, and flowers are grown close to these urban markets.

Beneath the southern edge of the North German Plain, a broad east-­west band of coal crosses the country. In the west, it is the black, high-quality bituminous variety that can be used to produce coke for the production of steel. The industrial city of Essen, on the Ruhr River, developed on this coalfield. In the east, the coal is the lower grade known as brown lignite.

Lignite is not suitable for steel production but can be used to provide energy for factories and electricity generation. Potash is the other main mineral found on the North German Plain, particularly near the city of Hanover.

The largest city on the North German Plain has no relationship to the physical features or natural resources of the area. Berlin is the seventh-largest city in Europe. It is an artificial product of the central governments of Prussia and Germany. The city was established as the capital because of its central location at a time when Germany extended farther east than it does today.


South of the North German Plain, the land becomes increasingly rugged due to the geological process of faulting. This creates steep-sided, flat-topped hills that because of erosion have become rounded in appearance. The highest elevations in this zone are found in the Black Forest, in the southwest corner of Germany, just east of the Upper Rhine, where the hills rise to 4,898 feet (1,493 meters). The Bohemian Forest and Ore Mountains on the border with the Czech Republic reach 2,536 feet (773 meters), and the Harz Mountains, which form the boundary with the North German Plain, to the southeast of Hanover, reach 3,747 feet (1,142 meters).

The Rhine, Weser, and Elbe rivers flow through the valleys between these hills, sometimes in steep-­
sided gorges. South of Bonn, the Rhine Gorge is a popular tourist attraction. The Rhine Valley in the southwest is the warmest part of Germany. The mean summer temperature is 66°F (19°C) and the average January temperature is just above freezing. The Black Forest to the east and the Vosges Mountains in France, to the west, create a sheltered environment. The valley sides are used for vineyards. Early Christian monks from Italy introduced grapes into the Rhine Valley for the production of wine. Vineyards are also found along the Moselle, Saar, Main, and Neckar rivers. The valley floors have rich alluvial soils. Wheat, corn, sugar beets, tobacco, hops, fruits, and specialty vegetables such as asparagus are grown here.

The Central Uplands are not high enough to be a climate barrier; however, rainfall increases with elevation—reaching up to 59 inches (150 centimeters)—and temperatures decline. There is abundant snowfall in the winter, continuing well into March. By 1800, the rivers provided waterpower for industry and today the Central Uplands provide water for the cities of the North German Plain.

Much of the Central Uplands region is forested. River valleys have alder, willow, and poplar where it is wet, and oak, ash, and elm in drier locations. Maple, chestnut, and walnut trees are also found in some areas. In the nineteenth century, the forests were cut to provide charcoal for the smelting of local iron ores into metal goods. The discovery of coal as a power source moved this industry to the nearby Ruhr Valley (Essen) in the west, and Chemnitz and Dresden in the east. Many areas have now been reforested. The Black Forest and the Jura Mountains are popular tourist destinations, and there are numerous national and state parks, where Germans can enjoy their favorite pastime of hiking. The Central Uplands also have small deposits of zinc, lead, silver, copper, and uranium. Most of the mines have closed because they are no longer profitable.

Farther south, the land is a series of plateaus crossed by the Main and Neckar rivers, both of which flow into the Rhine. The main city on the Neckar River is Stuttgart, while Frankfurt is on the Main River and Nuremberg (Nurnberg) is on the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. The Danube River forms the southern boundary of this area. It flows eastward from the Black Forest across southern Germany and into Austria, eventually reaching the Black Sea. A canal has been built to connect the Danube to the Main.


The Bavarian, or German, Alps occupy the extreme southern part of Germany. These mountains are a northern extension of the Alpine system that extends across portions of Austria and Switzerland, as well as into northern Italy and eastern France.

The Alps are high, folded mountains similar to the Rocky Mountains of the United States. Their spectacular terrain is the result of alpine, or mountain, glaciation that scoured a variety of jagged features. The highest elevation in Germany is Zugspitze, at 9,721 feet (2,963 meters). The Alpine foreland, or foothills, slopes down to the south bank of the Danube. The city of Munich, (Munchen) with a population of more than one million, is located at the northern end of a pass through the Alps. Precipitation in the Alps can reach 78 inches (198 centimeters) annually, and the rivers of the Alps provide sites for the generation of hydroelectricity.

About 31 percent of Germany is forested. Approximately 45 percent of this forest consists of pine and about 40 percent is beech. Pine is found at higher elevations and on poorer soils. Beech grows in well-drained areas with a temperate climate. Areas that have been replanted with spruce now make up 20 percent of the productive forest of Germany. Spruce will grow in colder temperatures and are found on the higher elevations of the Alpine region.

Germany supports an abundance of wildlife. Deer are found in the forests, as are martens (large weasels), wildcats, and, in remote areas, wolves. Beaver live along the Elbe River, and wild boars are found in the north. Because of its central location, a wide variety of birds also are found, including those common to both western and eastern Europe. Laws to protect plants and animals have been passed.


Extensive industrialization has contributed to significant air and water pollution in Germany. The burning of brown lignite coal emits sulfur and other chemicals into the air. These pollutants combine with water vapor in the air to form acid compounds, and when it rains, it is as if vinegar were being poured onto the land. Trees are killed by this acid rain, and when it accumulates in lakes, fish and other animals die. The government has undertaken efforts to control and reduce emissions in western Germany and has closed heavily polluting factories in the former East Germany.

Germany's rivers have been used for the disposal of industrial and municipal wastes and are also polluted by the heavy volume of shipping. Water of the Rhine River is so contaminated that swimming is prohibited. Although the government has now imposed strict regulations, considerable damage has already been done to the aquatic life. The cleanup is very expensive, and it takes a long time to eliminate contaminants from the environment. Large volumes of water are extracted from rivers to be used for cooling, particularly by steel mills, nuclear power plants, and other industries. Water used as a coolant is returned to the rivers at a higher temperature, endangering aquatic life by what is called heat pollution.

The Baltic Sea poses a special environmental problem, because it is almost landlocked. Being nearly enclosed by land, its water is not flushed clean on a regular basis. There are more than a dozen countries that dump pollutants into rivers that flow into the Baltic Sea. Germany has tried to clean up the industrial and municipal waste dumped into the sea by the former East Germany, but it needs the cooperation of other countries if the Baltic is to be rejuvenated. Residue from agricultural chemicals that flow into the Baltic are now the major source of pollution.

Open pit mining, particularly of lignite coal, damages the landscape and releases toxic chemicals into the surface and groundwater. After 1990, about one-third of the mines in East Germany were closed because of environmental concerns. This is a problem of considerable significance also found in the coal mining areas of the United States. Nuclear power plants provide some of Germany's electricity needs. Two plants in East Germany were closed in 1990 due to fears that they were not safe because of maintenance issues.

As was mentioned, one of the serious environmental issues confronting Germans is acid rain, which has devastated forests throughout much of central and northern Europe. Pollution and its causes do not recognize international boundaries. Because winds in the region primarily blow from the west, air masses filled with damaging particles travel eastward from the huge industrial centers of western Europe. Once they reach central Europe, they release acid rain that destroys vegetation.

Germany, then, is both a cause and a victim of acid rain and its devastating effects. Faced with this and other critical issues, countries of the European Union are increasingly improving their environmental standards. Thus, Germany is one of the leading supporters for the reduction of greenhouse gasses and industrial pollution, which is enormously significant considering the country is Europe's industrial leader.

Germany is relatively free of devastating environmental hazards. A country's geographic location often contributes to its potential harmony with or threats from the natural environment. The biggest problem in terms of financial damage is flooding. Rivers often spill over onto their surrounding flood-plains causing considerable damage. Floods in Germany are mostly the combination of two factors: seasonal snowmelt in the Alps and heavy rains that sometimes occur in the region.

They create conditions to which northern Germany's lowlands are particularly vulnerable. Cities are located along the riverbanks, and often spread out barely above the water level, thereby exposing them to rising water. The Rhine, which cuts through a hilly area of western Germany, often floods cities that are located on a narrow floodplain between the river and hill slopes.