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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 (about 500 to 395 million years ago) 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 (8,110 ft).
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 (the Jura range), faulting (the Vosges and Black Forest mountains), volcanism (the Massif Central, or central highlands, of France), and uplift (the Meseta Central, or central plateau, of Spain) 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.