Geography of Latvia

Geography of Latvia

Geographic coordinates: 57°00′N 25°00′E / 57°N 25°E / 57; 25

Detailed map of Latvia
Satellite image of Latvia in March 2003

Latvia lies on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea on the level northwestern part of the rising East European platform, between Estonia and Lithuania. About 98% of the country lies under 200 m (656 ft) elevation. With the exception of the coastal plains, the ice age divided Latvia into three main regions: the morainic Western and Eastern uplands and the Middle lowlands. Latvia holds over 12,000 rivers, only 17 of which are longer than 60 miles (97 km), and over 3,000 small lakes, most of which are eutrophic. The major rivers include the Daugava, the Lielupe, the Gauja, the Venta and the Salaca. Woodlands, more than half of which are pine woods, cover around 41% of the country. Other than peat, dolomite, and limestone, natural resources are scarce. Latvia has 531 km (330 mi) of sandy coastline, and the ports of Liepāja and Ventspils provide important warm-water harbors for the Baltic coast.

Latvia is slightly larger than Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovakia, or Estonia. Its strategic location has instigated many wars between rival powers on its territory. As recently as 1944, the U.S.S.R. granted Russia the Abrene region on the Livonian frontier, which Latvia contested after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.


Physical environment

Latvia is traditionally seen as a small country. In terms of its population of about 2.3 million, it deserves this designation. Geographically, however, Latvia encompasses 64,589 square kilometers, a size surpassing that of better-known European states such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Denmark. Seen from the air, Latvia is an extension of the East European Plain. Its flat terrain differs little from that of its surrounding neighbors. Latvia's only distinct border is the Baltic Sea coast, which extends for 531 kilometers. Its neighbors include Estonia on the north (267 kilometers of common border), Lithuania on the south (453 kilometers), Belarus on the southeast (141 kilometers), and Russia on the east (217 kilometers). Prior to World War II, Latvia bordered eastern Poland, but as a result of boundary changes by the Soviet Union, this territory was attached to Belarus. Also, in 1944 Russia annexed the northeastern border district of Latvia, known as Abrene, including the town of Pytalovo.

Geographic features

The physiography of Latvia and its neighboring areas was formed, to a large degree, during the Quaternary period and the Pleistocene ice age, when soil and debris were pushed by glaciers into mounds and hills. Undulating plains cover 75% of Latvia's territory and provide the main areas for farming; 25% of the territory lies in uplands of moderate-sized hills. About 27% of the total territory is cultivable, with the central Zemgale Plain south of Riga being the most fertile and profitable. The three main upland areas, in the provinces of Kurzeme (western Latvia), Vidzeme (central Latvia, Vidzeme Upland and Aluksne Upland), and Latgale (eastern Latvia), provide a picturesque pattern of fields interspersed with forests and numerous lakes and rivers. In this area, the extensive glacial moraines, eskers, and drumlins have limited the profitability of agriculture by fragmenting fields and presenting serious erosion problems.

About 10% of Latvian territory consists of peat bogs, swamps, and marshes, some of which are covered by stunted forest growth. Forests are the outstanding feature of Latvia, claiming 42% of the territory. Timber and wood products are among the country's most important exports. Two-thirds of the forests consist of Scots Pine or Norway Spruce. Latvian forests differ from those of North America primarily because of their relatively brush-free understory. The forest floor, however, is far from a biological desert, as is often the case in tree plantations. Indeed, one of the most widespread pastimes of the population is picking Bilberries, Cranberries, mushrooms, and other bounties of the natural environment.

Few of the forests are fully mature because of previous overcutting and also because of several violent storms during the 1960s, which snapped or uprooted millions of trees. As a consequence, most of the wood today is derived from thinning and improvement cuts, forming 50% of the annual total growth increment of 8 million cubic meters of wood.

For a long time, wood has been a basic source of energy. The utilization of wood as fuel has increased dramatically in the 1990s, even in cities, because of the numbing price hikes on other forms of energy. Local wood is also an important resource for the pulp and paper industry and for specialized plywood and furniture manufacturers. A great concern today is the unregulated cutting of timber for the foreign market. Prices paid by European wood buyers are phenomenally high by local standards, and there is much pressure to utilize this opportunity for cash accumulation, even without legal permits. By 1992 the problem had become so serious that Latvian forestry officials were given the right to carry firearms.

Not all forests are productive. Many areas, especially abandoned, formerly private farms, have become overgrown with low-value alders and other scrub trees. With the return of private farming, these areas are once again being reclaimed for agriculture. In the process, however, there is a danger that these areas, which are ideal for wildlife, will become threatened. The decades-long neglect of extensive areas of marginal farmland was a boon for the establishment of unique ecological conditions favorable for the survival of animal species rarely found in other parts of Europe. According to a World Wildlife Fund study in 1992, Latvia has unusual populations of Black Storks, Lesser Spotted Eagles, Otters, Beaver, Lynx, and Wolves. There are also great concentrations of deer (86,000; Red Deer and Roe Deer), Wild Boar (32,000), Elk (25,000), and Red Fox (13,000). Many Latvians today are planning to exploit this resource by catering to foreign hunters.

The variegated and rapidly changing physiography of glacial moraines and lowlands has also allowed temperate flora, such as oaks, to grow within a few hundred meters of northern flora, such as bog cotton and cloudberries. This variety and the rapid change in natural ecosystems are among the unique features of the republic.

The Soviet system left behind another windfall for naturalists. The Latvian western seacoast was a carefully guarded border region. Almost all houses near the sea were razed or evacuated. As a result, about 300 kilometers of undeveloped seashore are graced only by forests of pine and spruce and ecologically unique sand dunes. The temptation for fast profit, however, may foster violation of laws that clearly forbid any construction within one kilometer of the sea. Unless the government takes vigorous action, one of the last remaining wild shorelines in Europe may become just a memory.

The seashore adjoining the population centers around Riga was a major focus of tourism during the Soviet era. Jūrmala, with its many sanatoriums and tourist accommodations, its tall pines, sandy beaches, and antique architecture, is now experiencing a wrenching readjustment. East European tourists can no longer afford to come here, and Western tourists have not yet discovered the area and its relatively low prices. West Europeans may be loath to come, however, because excessive pollution has closed Jūrmala beaches to swimming since 1988.[citation needed] Moreover, facilities and accommodations adequate for Soviet tastes fall far short of minimal standards expected in the West.

Latvia has an abundant network of rivers, contributing to the visual beauty and the economy of the country. The largest river is the Daugava, which has been an important route for several thousand years. It has been used by local tribes as well as by Vikings, Russians, and other Europeans for trade, war, and conquest. With a total length of 1,020 kilometers, the Daugava (or Zapadnaya Dvina in its upper reaches) originates in the Valday Hills in Russia's Tver' Oblast, meanders through northern Belarus, and then winds through Latvia for 370 kilometers before emptying into the Gulf of Riga. It is about 200 meters wide when it enters Latvia, increasing to between 650 and 750 meters at Riga and to 1.5 kilometers at its mouth.

The river carries an average annual flow of 21 cubic kilometers. Its total descent within Latvia of ninety-eight meters has made it an attractive source of hydroelectric power production. The first hydroelectric station—Ķegums Hydro Power Plant—was built during Latvia's independence period. The second dam—Pļaviņas Hydro Power Plant—aroused an unusual wave of protest in 1958. Most Latvians opposed the flooding of historical sites and a particularly scenic gorge with rare plants and natural features, such as the Staburags, a cliff comparable in cultural significance to the Lorelei in Germany. The construction of the dam was endorsed in 1959, however, after the purge of relatively liberal and nationally oriented leaders under Eduards Berklavs and their replacement by Moscow-oriented, ideologically conservative cadres led by Arvīds Pelše. The third dam—Riga Hydroelectric Power Plant—just above Riga, did not provoke much protest because of the seeming hopelessness of the cause. The proposed fourth dam, at the town of Daugavpils on the Daugava River, became the rallying point for protest in 1986-87 by hundreds of thousands of Latvians. This dam was not constructed, in spite of the vast expenditures already poured into the project.

Smaller rivers include the Lielupe, in central Latvia, with an average annual flow of 3.6 cubic kilometers; the Venta, in the west, with 2.9 cubic kilometers; the Gauja, in the northeast, with 2.5 cubic kilometers; and the Aiviekste, in the east, with 2.1 cubic kilometers. Very little hydroelectric power is generated by their waters, although planners are now thinking of reactivating some of the abandoned older dams and turbines. The Gauja is one of Latvia's most attractive, relatively clean rivers and has an adjoining large Gauja National Park along both of its banks as one of its notable features. Its cold waters attract trout and salmon, and its sandstone cliff and forest setting are increasingly a magnet for tourists interested in the environment.

More than 60% of the annual water volume of Latvia's six largest rivers comes from neighboring countries, mainly from Belarus and Lithuania. These adjoining resources create obvious needs for cooperation, especially in pollution control. The dangers from a lack of cooperation were brought home to Latvians in November 1990, when a polymer complex in Navapolatsk, Belarus, accidentally spilled 128 tons of cyanide derivatives into the Daugava River with no warning to downstream users in Latvia. Only the presence of numerous dead fish alerted Latvian inhabitants to the danger.


In the summer, daylight hours are long and in the winter short. In December it is still pitch dark at 9:00 A.M., and daylight disappears before 4:00 P.M. This light deprivation may be an important ingredient in deciphering certain aspects of Latvian collective behavior. It may account for the general exuberance and joie de vivre in spring and summer, and the relative taciturnity and melancholy the rest of the year. The climate is tempered by the Gulf Stream flowing across the Atlantic Ocean from Mexico. Average temperatures in winter are reasonably mild, ranging in January from −2.8 °C (27.0 °F) in Liepāja, on the western coast, to −6.6 °C (20.1 °F) in the southeastern town of Daugavpils. July temperatures range from 16.7 °C (62.1 °F) in Liepāja to 17.6 °C (63.7 °F) in Daugavpils. Latvia's proximity to the sea brings high levels of humidity and precipitation, with average annual precipitation of 633 millimeters (24.9 in) in Riga. There, an average of 180 days per year have precipitation, forty-four days have fog, and only seventy-two days are sunny. Continuous snow cover lasts eighty-two days, and the frost-free period lasts 177 days.

This precipitation has helped provide the abundant water for Latvia's many rivers and lakes, but it has created many problems as well. A large part of agricultural land requires drainage. Much money has been spent for land amelioration projects involving the installation of drainage pipes, the straightening and deepening of natural streams, the digging of drainage ditches, and the construction of polder dams. During the 1960s and 1970s, drainage work absorbed about one-third of all agricultural investments in Latvia. Although accounting for only one-third of 1% of the territory, Latvia was responsible for 11% of all artificially drained land in the former Soviet Union.

An additional problem associated with precipitation is the difficulty of early mechanized sowing and harvesting because of waterlogged fields. Heavy precipitation occurs, especially during harvest time in August and September, requiring heavy investment outlays in grain-drying structures and ventilation systems. In 1992 Latvia experienced the driest summer in recorded weather history, but unusually heavy rains in the preceding spring kept crop damage below the extent expected. The moist climate has been a major factor orienting Latvian agriculture toward animal husbandry and dairying. Even most of the field crops, such as barley, oats, and potatoes, are grown for animal feed.

Natural resources

Latvia cannot claim valuable natural resources. Nevertheless, the abundant presence of such materials as limestone for cement (6,000,000,000 cubic meters / 7.8×109 cubic yards), gypsum (165,000,000 cubic meters / 216,000,000 cubic yards) high-quality clay (375,000,000 cubic meters / 490,000,000 cubic yards), dolomite (615,000,000 cubic meters / 804,000,000 cubic yards), peat (480,000,000 tonnes (529,109,429 short tons; 472,419,133 long tons) ), and construction materials, including gravel and sand, satisfy local needs. Fish from the Baltic Sea is another potential export resource. Amber, million-year-old chunks of petrified pine pitch, is often found on the beaches of the Baltic Sea and is in high demand for jewelry. It has also had a symbolic impact on the country, which is often called Dzintarzeme, or Amberland. The future may hold potentially more valuable resources if oil fields are discovered in Latvian territorial waters, as some geologists have predicted.

Area and boundaries

total: 64,588 km²
land: 64,588 km²
water: 0 km²

Area - comparative: slightly larger than West Virginia

Land boundaries:
total: 1,150 km
border countries: Belarus 141 km, Estonia 339 km, Lithuania 453 km, Russia 217 km

Coastline: 531 km

Maritime claims:
continental shelf: 200 m depth or to the depth of exploitation
exclusive economic zone: 200 nmi (370.4 km; 230.2 mi)
territorial sea: 12 nmi (22.2 km; 13.8 mi)

Elevation extremes:
lowest point: Baltic Sea 0 m
highest point: Gaizinkalns 312 m

Latitude and longitude

Resources and land use

Natural resources: minimal; amber, peat, limestone, dolomite, hydropower, arable land

Land use:
arable land: 27%
permanent crops: 0%
permanent pastures: 13%
forests and woodland: 46%
other: 14% (1993 est.)

Irrigated land: 160 km² (1993 est.)

Environmental concerns

Natural hazards: NA

Environment - current issues: air and water pollution because of a lack of waste conversion equipment; Gulf of Riga and Daugava River heavily polluted; contamination of soil and groundwater with chemicals and petroleum products at military bases

Environment - international agreements:
party to: Air Pollution, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Wetlands
signed, but not ratified: Air Pollution-Persistent Organic Pollutants, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol

See also


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