Geography of Poland
Poland is one of the biggest countries in Central Europe with an area of 312,679 sq km (120,726 sq mi). This makes it the 9th largest country in Europe and the 63rd largest in the world. The country is bordering Germany to the west, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south, Ukraine and Belarus to the east, and Lithuania and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to the northeast. Its northern frontier constitutes the Baltic Sea. Poland`s shape is roughly square, measuring 400-440 miles across.
Poland is a relatively low-lying country with 91% of its territory lying below 300 m above sea level. Although most of Poland’s territory is lowland, the country has amazing and versatile natural environment. In the north, Poland reaches the Baltic Sea with its beautiful sandy beaches and busy harbors. Glacial action in this region formed lakes and low hills in the otherwise flat terrain. Small lakes dot the entire northern half of Poland, however their biggest concentration is in the northeastern region known as Masurian Lake District. The area which is occupied by more than 2000 lakes and is densely wooded is a favorite destination for sailing and canoeing. This is also where the only primeval forests remaining in Europe extend being the mainstay of Poland’s shrinking unspoiled natural habitat.
Across central Poland a vast region of plains extends – the so called Polish Plain, used mainly for agriculture. To the south of central lowlands the terrain rises slowly and is again more hilly and diverse, dominated by highlands. Along the southern border stretch the mountain ridges of Carpathians and Sudetes. Tatra Mountains (part of Carpathians) have Alpine character and here the highest Polish peak is found – Mount Rysy, 2499 m (8200 feet) above sea level. Polish mountains offer wonderful hiking and skiing opportunities.
Approximately one-fifth of the territory of Poland is maintained as fields, pasture and meadows. About 27% of the total area is covered by forest. Several major rivers cross the country, including the Vistula (Wisla) in the center – the “queen” of Polish rivers and the longest one (1047 m / 667 mi), and the Oder (Odra) (854 km / 530 mi) which flows along Poland`s western border.
Poland has a moderate climate influenced by both maritime and continental elements. Humid Atlantic air masses collide with dry continental masses over its territory making the weather in Poland capricious and changeable, and consequently difficult to predict. Generally, in north and west part of the country the climate is predominantly maritime, with gentle, humid winters and cool, rainy summers, while the eastern and southern part of Poland has distinctly continental climate with harsh winters and hotter, drier summers.
There are six seasons of the year in Poland – in addition to the four typical such as spring, summer, autumn (fall) and winter, there are also two seasons described as early spring and early winter. The spring arrives slowly in March or April, bringing sunny days as well as rain and light frost. The daily temperature at that time ranges from 5 C to 15 C. The summer, with temperatures above 20 C, begins in late May / June and lasts until the end of August. Hot and sunny days alternate with showers and thunderstorms. July is the hottest month, however hot days, when the temperature exceeds 25 C, occur from May to September. Early autumn (fall) is generally sunny and warm – in September and October leaves on trees change colours and a beautiful period called Polish Golden Autumn (Fall) begins. November brings rains and lower temperatures, days become visibly shorter. Winter lasts from December through January until late February or early March. Temperatures drop below 5 C, often heavy frost and snowstorms occur. January is the coldest month of the year. This climatic calendar is more complicated, though, as there are plenty of anomalies which make another distinctive feature of Poland’s climate.
Poland is a country of great biological diversity. The country spreads between natural sand beaches of the Baltic Sea in the north, through clear lakes, rivers and extensive well-preserved forests, tranquility of central lowlands to vast uplands and mountain peaks in the south. Bio-variety of Polish fauna and flora is fascinating. There are around 75,000 species of plants, 39,000 micro-organisms and fungi, around 2750 vascular plant species and sub-species and around 33,000-45,000 of animal species living in numerous co-existing ecosystems. Some species and habitat types still exist here, even though they have disappeared in the west of Europe.
The most valuable primeval areas unique on a European scale are under legal protection. There are 23 national parks in Poland, which cover an area of 3,200 sq km (1,235 sq miles) – approximately 1% of the country’s area. Moreover, there are 1354 nature reserves, 121 landscape parks and 1098 territories of Nature 2000 preservation system.
Nature protection in Poland has long tradition. Thanks to such attitude there are still places hardly touched by civilization, like Bialowieza Primeval Forest, endless Biebrza marshes or desolate Bieszczady Mountains.
Some animals have always had special status in Poland. Among the most iconic ones are:
– eagle – the white-tailed eagle has been a symbol of Polish nation since the origin of Polish state. Poland is one of the mainstays for this large bird of prey. It can be observed in the wild in central, north-western and eastern parts of the country.
– stork – one of the most favorite and beloved Polish animals. White storks are believed to bring good luck, especially if they nest on a household. There is a large population of white storks in Poland; they nest here in summer and migrate to Africa for winter.
– bison – the biggest mammal in Poland and whole Europe. It now resides in primeval forests of Bialowieza and has become a symbol of the Bialowieza National Park. Bison has been also chosen for a trade mark for two Polish beverages: herbal bison vodka and beer.
– wolf – is under legal protection in Poland. There are around 600 gray wolves living in the remote and forested areas of eastern Poland, mainly in the Carpathian Mountains.
The present population of Polish people living in Poland is estimated at slightly over 38 million. Worldwide there are additional 15-20 million Poles and people of Polish origin living abroad.
Poland is an almost mono-ethnic society with Poles making up around 97% of the country’s inhabitants. The number of combined non-Polish ethnic minorities range between 1-2 million (3%) and consist of ca. 20 ethnic groups. The biggest ethnic minorities include approx. 817,000 Silesians (0,45%), 126,000 Germans (0,4%), 46,000 Belarusians (0,1%), 49,000 Ukrainians (0,1%) and other (2%).
Today ethnic situation of Poland is very different from what it was before the World War II. Before 1939 Poland was a very multi-ethnic country with a third of its population composing of minorities. Due to the Soviet and German genocides, shifting of country’s borders after the war and ethnic policies of communist government, Poland’s minorities were almost gone. The Jewish community of over 3 million was almost completely wiped out – today Jewish population in Poland is estimated at ca. 6,000 to 10,000 people.
Major communities of Poles and people of Polish descent can be found throughout Europe: in Germany, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia, France, United Kingdom, Sweden, Ireland, as well as in the Americas: in the United States, Brazil, Canada, Argentina, and Australia. Poles also reside in many other countries on all continents.
The biggest number of Poles belong to the Catholic Church – ca. 90% of Polish society. Approximately 87% are Roman Catholics. The rest of the population consists of Eastern Orthodox (1,3%), Protestants (0,4%) and other Christian religions. Judaism and Islam are the biggest non-Christian religions.