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Northern Europe refers geographically to the northern part of Europe, or in a narrower sense, to the cultural grouping of the Nordic countries, Baltic countries, and sometimes also the British Isles. Greenland, which is geographically part of North America, forms one of the Nordic countries (and is politically part of the Kingdom of Denmark) and therefore may be included in Northern Europe by some definitions.
Although no definitive borders or definition exists, geographically, Northern Europe may be considered to consist approximately of all of Europe above the 52nd parallel north; which includes (from west to east) most or all of: Iceland, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man, the United Kingdom, the Faroe Islands, the Netherlands, northern Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and northwest Russia. However, narrower definitions may also be used based on other geographical factors, such as climate and ecology, while a broader definition includes the area north of the Alps.
While Northern Europe partly overlaps with Northwestern, Northeastern, and Central Europe, it is rarely considered to directly border Southern Europe. Countries which are central-western (such as Belgium), central-central (such as Austria), or central-eastern (such as Poland) are usually considered part of neither Northern nor Southern Europe.
Notable geographical features of Northern Europe include the North European Plain in the mid-north of Europe, the Fennoscandian Peninsula in the far-north, Baltic plain, and the British Isles in the northwest
Historically, when Europe was dominated by the Mediterranean region (i.e., the Roman Empire), everything not near this sea was termed Northern Europe, including southern Germany, all of the Low Countries, and Austria. This meaning is still used today in some contexts, such as in discussions of the Northern Renaissance. In medieval times, the term (Ultima) Thule was used to mean a mythical place in the extreme northern reaches of the continent.
Northern Europe consists roughly of Fennoscandia, the peninsula of Jutland, the Baltic plain that lies to the east and the many islands that lie offshore from mainland Northern Europe, Greenland, and the main European continent.
The area is defined by the volcanic islands of the far northwest, notably Iceland and Jan Mayen, the mountainous western seaboard, extending from the mountainous sections of Great Britain and Ireland to the Scandinavian mountains peaking in Norway, the central north mountains and hills of Sweden (which are the foothills of the Scandinavian mountains) and the large eastern plain, which contains, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland.
The region has a south west extreme of around 50 degrees north and a northern extreme of 81 degrees north. The entire region's climate is mildly affected by the Gulf Stream. From the west climates vary from maritime and maritime subarctic climates. In the north and central climates are generally subarctic or Arctic and to the east climates are mostly subarctic and temperate/continental.
Just as both climate and relief are variable across the region, so too is vegetation also extremely variable, with sparse tundra in the north and high mountains, boreal forest on the north-eastern and central regions temperate coniferous forests (formerly of which a majority was in the Scottish Highlands and south west Norway) and temperate broadleaf forests growing in the south, west and temperate east.
Countries in Northern Europe have large, developed economies and some of the highest standards of living in the world. They often score highly on surveys measuring quality of life, such as the Human Development Index. Aside from the United Kingdom, they generally have a small population relative to their size, most of which live in cities. Most peoples living in Northern Europe are Protestant Christians, although many are non-practicing. There is also a growing number of irreligious peoples and Muslims, the latter of which is due to immigration. The United Kingdom is an outlier in this regard, as heavy immigration from its former colony, the British Raj, particularly modern-day India, has also added Hindus, a religion found in minuscule numbers in all other Northern European countries. The quality of education in Northern Europe is rated highly in international rankings, with Estonia and Finland topping the list among the OECD countries in Europe.