Location: Southwestern Europe, bordering the Bay of Biscay,
Mediterranean Sea, North Atlantic Ocean, and Pyrenees Mountains,
southwest of France
Geographic coordinates: 40 00 N, 4 00 W
Map references: Europe
total: 504,782 sq km
land: 499,542 sq km
water: 5,240 sq km
note: includes Balearic Islands, Canary Islands, and five
places of sovereignty (plazas de soberania) on and off the coast
of Morocco - Ceuta, Melilla, Islas Chafarinas, Penon de Alhucemas,
and Penon de Velez de la Gomera
Area - comparative: slightly more than twice the size of
total: 1,917.8 km
border countries: Andorra 63.7 km, France 623 km, Gibraltar
1.2 km, Portugal 1,214 km, Morocco (Ceuta) 6.3 km, Morocco (Melilla)
Coastline: 4,964 km
contiguous zone: 24 nm
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm (applies only to the Atlantic
territorial sea: 12 nm
Climate: temperate; clear, hot summers in interior, more
moderate and cloudy along coast; cloudy, cold winters in interior,
partly cloudy and cool along coast
Terrain: large, flat to dissected plateau surrounded by
rugged hills; Pyrenees in north
lowest point: Atlantic Ocean 0 m
highest point: Pico de Teide (Tenerife) on Canary Islands
Natural resources: coal, lignite, iron ore, uranium, mercury,
pyrites, fluorspar, gypsum, zinc, lead, tungsten, copper, kaolin,
potash, hydropower, arable land
arable land: 30%
permanent crops: 9%
permanent pastures: 21%
forests and woodland: 32%
other: 8% (1993 est.)
Irrigated land: 34,530 sq km (1993 est.)
Natural hazards: periodic droughts
Environment - current issues: pollution of the Mediterranean
Sea from raw sewage and effluents from the offshore production of
oil and gas; water quality and quantity nationwide; air pollution;
Environment - international agreements:
party to: Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Air
Pollution-Sulphur 94, Air Pollution-Volatile Organic Compounds,
Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity,
Climate Change, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification,
Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Marine Life Conservation,
Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical
Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands, Whaling
signed, but not ratified: Air Pollution-Persistent Organic
Pollutants, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification
Geography - note: strategic location along approaches to
Strait of Gibraltar
The country of Spain is located at the Iberian Peninsula, of which
it occupies approximately 80% (the remaining 20% are occupied
by Portugal), in the southwest of Europe. In the North Spain
borders on France and Andorra, with the Pyrenees as a natural frontier.
Additionally the Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza)in
the Mediterranean Sea, Canary Islands in Atlantic Ocean close to
the Moroccian coast, and Ceuta and Melilla, located in northern
Africa, are Spanish territory. Spain is the 3rd country of Europe
in extension and the 5th in population.
There are five big mountain ranges crossing the country, and about
50% of it are located at an elevated plain. Landscapes are extremely
varied, some almost desert-like, others green and fertile, and of
course there are the long coasts, in the east along Mediterranean
Sea from Pyrenees to Gibraltar, and in the west the major part (of
the Iberian peninsula's western coast is occupied by Portugal)
along the Atlantic Ocean and Cantabrian Sea.
The Country of Spain experiences three climatic types that are continental,
maritime, and Mediterranean.
The locally generated continental climate covers the majority of
peninsular Spain, influencing the Meseta Central, the adjoining
mountains to the east and the south, and the Ebro Basin.
Continental climate is characterized by wide diurnal and seasonal
variations in temperature and by low, irregular rainfall with high
rates of evaporation that leave the land arid.
Annual rainfall generally is thirty to sixty-four centimeters; most
of the Meseta region receives about fifty centimeters.
The northern Meseta, the Sistema Central, and the Ebro Basin have
two rainy seasons, one in spring (April-June) and the other in autumn
(October to November ), with late spring being the wettest time
of the year.
In the southern Meseta, the wet seasons are spring and autumn, but
the spring one is earlier in (March), and autumn is the wetter season
of the year. Even during the wet seasons, rain is irregular and
Continental winters are cold, with strong winds and high humidity,
despite the low precipitation. Except for mountain areas, the northern
foothills of the Sistema Iberico are the coldest areas, and frost
Summers are warm and cloudless, producing an average daytime temperatures
that reaches 21° C in the northern Meseta and 24 to 27° C in the
southern Meseta; nighttime temperatures range from 7 to 10 C.
The Ebro Basin, at a lower altitude, is extremely hot during the
summer, and temperatures can exceed 43 C. Summer humidities are
low in the Meseta Central and in the Ebro Basin, except right along
the shores of in the Rio Ebro where humidity is high.
A powerful world empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain
ultimately yielded command of the seas to England, beginning with
the defeat of the Armada in 1588. Spain subsequently failed to embrace
the mercantile and industrial revolutions and fell behind Britain,
France, and Germany in economic and political power. Spain remained
neutral in World Wars I and II.
In the second half of the 20th century Spain played a catch-up role
in the western international community. Continuing problems are
large-scale unemployment and the Basque separatist movement.
Spain is a country in Western Europe famous for its colourful bullfights,
sunny climate, and beautiful story-book castles. Until the mid-1900's,
Spain was one of the most underdeveloped countries of Western Europe.
Most of the people were poor farmers.
Then during the 1950's and 1960's, rapid economic development changed
Spain into an industrial nation.
Size: Peninsular Spain covers 492,503 square
kilometers. Spanish territory also encompasses the Balearic Islands
(Spanish, Islas Baleares) in the Mediterranean Sea and the Canary
Islands (Spanish, Canarias) in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the
city enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa.
Topography: Peninsular landmass predominantly
a vast highland plateau--the Meseta Central--surrounded and dissected
by mountain ranges. Major lowland areas include narrow coastal plains,
Andalusian Plain in southwest, and Ebro Basin in northeast. Islands,
especially Canary Islands, mountainous.
Climate: Predominantly continental climate with
hot, dry summers and rather harsh, cold winters. Wide diurnal and
seasonal variations in temperature and low, irregular rainfall.
Maritime climate prevails in northern part of country, characterized
by relatively mild winters, warm but not hot summers, and generally
abundant rainfall spread throughout year. Slight diurnal and seasonal
variations in temperature. Mediterranean climate experienced from
Andalusian Plain along south and east coasts, characterized by irregular,
inadequate rainfall, mostly in autumn and winter.
Data as of December 1988
Spanish territory comprises nearly five-sixths of the Iberian Peninsula,
which the nation shares with Portugal, the micro-state of Andorra,
and the British possession of Gibraltar. Spanish territory also
includes two sets of islands--the Balearic Islands (Spanish, Islas
Baleares) in the Mediterranean Sea and the Canary Islands (Spanish,
Canarias) in the Atlantic Ocean--and two city enclaves in North
Africa, Ceuta and Melilla (see
fig. 1). Peninsular Spain, covering an area of 492,503 square
kilometers, consists of a central plateau known as the Meseta Central,
which is enclosed by high mountains on its north, south, east, and
part of its western sides. The area that is predominantly plateau
also encompasses several mountain systems that are lower than the
peripheral mountains. Although Spain thus has physical characteristics
that make it, to some extent, a natural geographic unit, there are
also internal geographic features that tend to compartmentalize
The topographical characteristics also generate a variety of climatic
regimes throughout the country. By far the greatest part of the
country, however, experiences a continental climate of hot, dry
summers and rather harsh, cold winters. Where these conditions prevail,
the soils have eroded, vegetation is sparse, and agriculture is
difficult. Irrigation is practiced where possible, but it is difficult
because the flow in most streams is seasonally irregular, and the
stream beds of larger rivers are frequently much lower than the
Data as of December 1988
External Boundaries and Landform Regions
Most of Spain's boundary is water: the Mediterranean Sea on the
south and east from Gibraltar to the French border; and the Atlantic
Ocean on the northwest and southwest--in the south as the Golfo
de Cadiz and in the north as the Bay of Biscay. Spain also shares
land boundaries with France and Andorra along the Pyrenees in the
northeast, with Portugal on the west, and with the small British
possession of Gibraltar at the southern tip. Although the affiliation
of Gibraltar continued to be a contentious issue between Spain and
Britain in the late 1980s, there were no other disputes over land
boundaries, and no other country claimed the insular provinces of
the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands (see Gilbraltar,
Ceuta, and Melilla , ch. 4).
The majority of Spain's peninsular landmass consists of the Meseta
Central, a highland plateau rimmed and dissected by mountain ranges
(see fig. 5). Other landforms
include narrow coastal plains and some lowland river valleys, the
most prominent of which is the Andalusian Plain in the southwest.
The country can be divided into ten natural regions or subregions:
the dominant Meseta Central, the Cordillera Cantabrica and the northwest
region, the Iberico region, the Pyrenees, the Penibetico region
in the southeast, the Andalusian Plain, the Ebro Basin, the coastal
plains, the Balearic Islands, and the Canary Islands. These are
commonly grouped into four types: the Meseta Central and associated
mountains, other mountainous regions, lowland regions, and islands.
Data as of December 1988
The Meseta Central and Associated Mountains
The Meseta Central, a vast plateau in the heart of peninsular Spain,
has elevations that range from 610 to 760 meters. Rimmed by mountains,
the Meseta Central slopes gently to the west and to the series of
rivers that form some of the border with Portugal. The Sistema Central,
described as the "dorsal spine" of the Meseta Central, divides the
Meseta into northern and southern subregions, the former higher
in elevation and smaller in area than the latter. The Sistema Central
rims the capital city of Madrid with peaks that rise to 2,400 meters
north of the city and to lower elevations south of it. West of Madrid,
the Sistema Central shows its highest peak of almost 2,600 meters.
The mountains of the Sistema Central, which continue westward into
Portugal, display some glacial features; the highest of the peaks
are snow-capped for most of the year. Despite their height, however,
the mountain system does not create a major barrier between the
northern and the southern portions of the Meseta Central because
several passes permit road and railroad transportation to the northwest
and the northeast.
The southern portion of the Meseta is further divided by twin mountain
ranges, the Montes de Toledo running to the east and the Sierra
de Guadalupe, to the west. Their peaks do not rise much higher than
1,500 meters. With many easy passes, including those that connect
the Meseta with the Andalusian Plain, the Montes de Toledo and the
Sierra de Guadalupe do not present an obstacle to transportation
and communication. The two mountain ranges are separated from the
Sistema Central to the north by the Tagus River.
The mountain regions that rim the Meseta Central and are associated
with it are the Sierra Morena, the Cordillera Cantabrica, and the
Sistema Iberico. Forming the southern edge of the Meseta Central,
the Sierra Morena merges in the east with the southern extension
of the Sistema Iberico and reaches westward along the northern edge
of the Rio Guadalquivir valley to join the mountains in southern
Portugal. The massif of the Sierra Morena extends northward to the
Rio Guadiana, which separates it from the Sistema Central. Despite
their relatively low elevations, seldom surpassing 1,300 meters,
the mountains of the Sierra Morena are rugged.
The Cordillera Cantabrica, a limestone formation, runs parallel
to, and close to, the northern coast near the Bay of Biscay. Its
highest points are the Picos de Europa, surpassing 2,500 meters.
The Cordillera Cantabrica extends 182 kilometers and abruptly drops
1,500 meters some 30 kilometers from the coast. To the west lie
the hills of the northwest region.
The Sistema Iberico extends from the Cordillera Cantabrica southeastward
and, close to the Mediterranean, spreads out from the Rio Ebro to
the Rio Jucar. The barren, rugged slopes of this mountain range
cover an area of close to 21,000 square kilometers. The mountains
exceed 2,000 meters in their northern region and reach a maximum
height of over 2,300 meters east of the headwaters of the Rio Duero.
The extremely steep mountain slopes in this range are often cut
by deep, narrow gorges.
Data as of December 1988
Other Mountainous Regions
External to the Meseta Central lie the Pyrenees in the northeast
and the Sistema Penibetico in the southeast. The Pyrenees, extending
from the eastern edge of the Cordillera Cantabrica to the Mediterranean
Sea, form a solid barrier and a natural border between Spain and
both France and Andorra that, throughout history, has effectively
isolated the countries from each other. Passage is easy in the relatively
low terrain at the eastern and western extremes of the mountain
range; it is here that international railroads and roadways cross
the border. In the central section of the Pyrenees, however, passage
is difficult. In several places, peaks rise above 3,000 meters;
the highest, Pico de Aneto, surpasses 3,400 meters.
The Sistema Penibetico extends northeast from the southern tip
of Spain, running parallel to the coast until it merges with the
southern extension of the Sistema Iberico near the Rio Jucar and
with the eastern extension of the Sierra Morena. The Sierra Nevada,
part of the Sistema Penibetico south of Granada, includes the highest
mountain on the peninsula, Mulhacen, which rises to 3,430 meters.
Other peaks in the range also surpass 3,000 meters.
Data as of December 1988
The major lowland regions are the Andalusian Plain in the southwest,
the Ebro Basin in the northeast, and the coastal plains. The Andalusian
Plain is essentially a wide river valley through which the Rio Guadalquivir
flows. The river broadens out along its course, reaching its widest
point at the Golfo de Cadiz. The Andalusian Plain is bounded on
the north by the Sierra Morena and on the south by the Sistema Penibetico;
it narrows to an apex in the east where these two mountain chains
meet. The Ebro Basin is formed by the Rio Ebro valley, contained
by mountains on three sides--the Sistema Iberico to the south and
west, the Pyrenees to the north and east, and their coastal extensions
paralleling the shore to the east. Minor low-lying river valleys
close to the Portuguese border are located on the Tagus and the
The coastal plains regions are narrow strips between the coastal
mountains and the seas. They are broadest along the Golfo de Cadiz,
where the coastal plain adjoins the Andalusian Plain, and along
the southern and central eastern coasts. The narrowest coastal plain
runs along the Bay of Biscay, where the Cordillera Cantabrica ends
close to shore.
Data as of December 1988
The remaining regions of Spain are the Balearic and the Canary
Islands, the former located in the Mediterranean Sea and the latter
in the Atlantic Ocean. The Balearic Islands, encompassing a total
area of 5,000 square kilometers, lie 80 kilometers off Spain's central
eastern coast. The mountains that rise up above the Mediterranean
Sea to form these islands are an extension of the Sistema Penibetico.
The archipelago's highest points, which reach 1,400 meters, are
in northwestern Majorca, close to the coast. The central portion
of Majorca is a plain, bounded on the east and the southeast by
The Canary Islands, ninety kilometers off the west coast of Africa,
are of volcanic origin. The large central islands, Gran Canaria
and Tenerife, have the highest peaks; on Gran Canaria they rise
to 1,950 meters and on Tenerife, to 3,700 meters.
Data as of December 1988
Of the roughly 1,800 rivers and streams in Spain, only the Tagus
is more than 960 kilometers long; all but 90 extend less than 96
kilometers. These shorter rivers carry small volumes of water on
an irregular basis, and they have seasonally dry river beds; however,
when they do flow, they often are swift and torrential. Most major
rivers rise in the mountains rimming or dissecting the Meseta Central
and flow westward across the plateau through Portugal to empty into
the Atlantic Ocean. One significant exception is the Rio Ebro, which
flows eastward to the Mediterranean. Rivers in the extreme northwest
and in the narrow northern coastal plain drain directly into the
Atlantic Ocean. The northwestern coastline is also truncated by
rias, waterbodies similar to fjords.
The major rivers flowing westward through the Meseta Central include
the Rio Duero, the Tagus, the Rio Guadiana, and the Rio Guadalquivir.
The Rio Guadalquivir is one of the most significant rivers in Spain
because it irrigates a fertile valley, thus creating a rich agricultural
area, and because it is navigable inland, making Seville the only
inland river port for ocean-going traffic in Spain. The major river
in the northwest region is the Rio Mino.
Data as of December 1988
Peninsular Spain experiences three climatic types: continental,
maritime, and Mediterranean. The locally generated continental climate
covers the majority of peninsular Spain, influencing the Meseta
Central, the adjoining mountains to the east and the south, and
the Ebro Basin. A continental climate is characterized by wide diurnal
and seasonal variations in temperature and by low, irregular rainfall
with high rates of evaporation that leave the land arid. Annual
rainfall generally is thirty to sixty-four centimeters; most of
the Meseta region receives about fifty centimeters. The northern
Meseta, the Sistema Central, and the Ebro Basin have two rainy seasons,
one in spring (April-June) and the other in autumn (OctoberNovember
), with late spring being the wettest time of the year. In the southern
Meseta, also, the wet seasons are spring and autumn, but the spring
one is earlier (March), and autumn is the wetter season. Even during
the wet seasons, rain is irregular and unreliable. Continental winters
are cold, with strong winds and high humidity, despite the low precipitation.
Except for mountain areas, the northern foothills of the Sistema
Iberico are the coldest area, and frost is common. Summers are warm
and cloudless, producing average daytime temperatures that reach
21° C in the northern Meseta and 24 to 27° C in the southern
Meseta; nighttime temperatures range from 7 to 10 C. The Ebro Basin,
at a lower altitude, is extremely hot during the summer, and temperatures
can exceed 43 C. Summer humidities are low in the Meseta Central
and in the Ebro Basin, except right along the shores of in the Rio
Ebro where humidity is high.
A maritime climate prevails in the northern part of the country,
from the Pyrenees to the northwest region, characterized by relatively
mild winters, warm but not hot summers, and generally abundant rainfall
spread out over the year. Temperatures vary only slightly, both
on a diurnal and a seasonal basis. The moderating effects of the
sea, however, abate in the inland areas, where temperatures are
9 to 18 C more extreme than temperatures on the coast. Distance
from the Atlantic Ocean also affects precipitation, and there is
less rainfall in the east than in the west. Autumn (October through
December) is the wettest season, while July is the driest month.
The high humidity and the prevailing off-shore winds make fog and
mist common along the northwest coast; this phenomenon is less frequent
a short distance inland, however, because the mountains form a barrier
keeping out the sea moisture.
The Mediterranean climatic region extends from the Andalusian Plain
along the southern and eastern coasts up to the Pyrenees, on the
seaward side of the mountain ranges that parallel the coast. Total
rainfall in this region is lower than in the rest of Spain, and
it is concentrated in the late autumn-winter period. Generally,
rainfall is slight, often insufficient, irregular, and unreliable.
Temperatures in the Mediterranean region usually are higher in both
summer and winter, and diurnal temperature changes are more limited
than those of the continental region. Temperatures in January normally
average 10 to 13 C in most of the Mediterranean region, and they
are 9 C colder in the northeastern coastal area near Barcelona.
In winter, temperatures inland in the Andalusian Plain are slightly
lower than those on the coasts. Temperatures in July and August
average 22 to 27 C on the coast and 29 to 31 C farther inland, with
low humidity. The Mediterranean region is marked by Leveche winds--hot,
dry, easterly or southeasterly air currents that originate over
North Africa. These winds, which sometimes carry fine dust, are
most common in spring. A cooler easterly wind, the Levante, funnels
between the Sistema Penibetico and the Atlas Mountains of North
Data as of December 1988