Spain is located in southwestern Europe and comprises about 84 percent of the Iberian Peninsula. Its total area is 504,782 km2 (194,897 sq mi) of which 499,542 km2 (192,874 sq mi) is land and 5,240 km2 (2,023 sq mi) is water. Spain lies between latitudes 26° and 44° N, and longitudes 19° W and 5° E. Its Atlantic coast is 710 km (441 mi) long. The Pyrenees mountain range, extends 435 km (270 mi) from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Biscay. In the extreme south of Spain lie the Straits of Gibraltar, which separate Spain and the rest of Europe from Morocco in north Africa; at its narrowest extent, Spain and Morocco are separated by only 13 km (8.1 mi).
Off the Iberian Peninsula there are several other Spanish areas: the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands to the southwest, 108 km (67 mi) off northwest Africa, and five places of sovereignty (plazas de soberanía) on and off the coast of Morocco: Ceuta, Melilla, Islas Chafarinas, Peñón de Alhucemas, and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera.
Most of Spain’s boundaries are 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 Cádiz 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 Overseas Territory of Gibraltar near the southernmost tip. The affiliation of Gibraltar has continued to be a contentious issue between Spain and Britain and so is the sovereignty of the plazas de soberanía, claimed by Morocco.
Spain also has a small exclave inside France called Llívia.
The majority of Spain’s peninsular region consists of the Meseta Central, a highland plateau rimmed and dissected by mountain ranges. 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 Cantabrian Mountains (Cordillera Cantabrica) and the northwest region, the Ibérico region, the Pyrenees, the Penibético 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.
The Inner Plateau and associated mountains
The Meseta Central (“Inner Plateau”) is a vast plateau in the heart of peninsular Spain, has elevations that range from 610 to 760 m. 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 m north of the city and to lower elevations south of it. West of Madrid, the Sistema Central shows its highest peak, Pico Almanzor, of 2,592 m. 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 m. 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 longest river in the Iberian Peninsula: the Tagus River.
The mountain regions that rim the Meseta Central and are associated with it are the Sierra Morena, the Cordillera Cantábrica, and the Sistema Ibérico. 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 Río Guadiana, which separates it from the Sistema Central. Despite their relatively low elevations, seldom surpassing 1,300 m, the mountains of the Sierra Morena are rugged.
The Cordillera Cantábrica, 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 2,600 m. The Cordillera Cantábrica extends 182 km and abruptly drops 1,500 m some 30 km from the coast. To the west lie the hills of the northwest region and to the east the Basque mountains that link them to the Pyrenees.
The Sistema Ibérico extends from the Cordillera Cantábrica southeastward and, close to the Mediterranean, spreads out from the Río Ebro to the Río Júcar. The barren, rugged slopes of this mountain range cover an area of close to 21,000 square kilometers. The mountains exceed 2,000 m in their northern region and reach a maximum height of over 2,300 m east of the headwaters of the Rio Duero. The extremely steep mountain slopes in this range are often cut by deep, narrow gorges.
Other mountainous regions
External to the Meseta Central lie the Pyrenees in the northeast and the Sistema Penibético in the southeast. The Pyrenees, extending from the eastern edge of the Cordillera Cantábrica 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 m; the highest, Pico de Aneto, surpasses 3,400 m.
The Sistema Penibético extends northeast from the southern tip of Spain, running parallel to the coast until it merges with the southern extension of the Sistema Ibérico near the Rio Júcar and with the eastern extension of the Sierra Morena. The Sierra Nevada, part of the Sistema Penibético south of Granada, includes the highest mountain on the peninsula and continental Spain, Mulhacén, which rises to 3,479 m. Other peaks in the range also surpass 3,000 m.
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 Río 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 Penibético; it narrows to an apex in the east where these two mountain chains meet. The Ebro Basin is formed by the Río Ebro valley, contained by mountains on three sides—the Sistema Ibérico 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 Río Guadiana.
The Coastal Plains regions are narrow strips between the coastal mountains and the seas. They are broadest along the Golfo de Cádiz, 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 Cantábrica ends close to shore.
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 Mallorca, close to the coast. The central portion of Majorca is a plain, bounded on the east and the southeast by broken hills.
The Canary Islands, ninety kilometers off the west coast of Africa, are of volcanic origin. The large central islands, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, have the highest peaks. Pico de Las Nieves, on Gran Canaria, rises to 1,949 meters, and the Teide, on Tenerife, to 3,718 meters. Teide, a dormant volcano, is the highest peak of Spain and the third largest volcano in the world from its base.
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 river with the most abundant flow in Spain, the 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 Duero, the Tagus, the Guadiana, and the 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 Miño.
El Atazar Dam is a major dam built near Madrid to provide a water supply.
According to the Köppen climate classification, the climate in Spain is essentially mediterranean.
Peninsular Spain mostly experiences a Mediterranean climate. But to a lesser extent, there are two other climate regions: the Oceanic climate and the Semiarid climate. Highland areas have a mountainous climate, and some overseas areas have a humid subtropical climate.
The Mediterranean climate is characterized by dry and warm summers. According to the Köppen climate classification, it is dominant in the peninsula, with two varieties:
The typical Mediterranean climate (Csa climate) is present in the most of the country. Like the other Mediterranean regions, the annual rainfall is 300 to 700 mm (11.8 to 27.6 in); most of the Meseta region receives about 500 mm (19.7 in). 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-November), 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. Summers are warm and cloudless, producing average daytime temperatures that reach 21 °C (69.8 °F) in the northern Meseta and 24 °C (75.2 °F) to 27 °C (80.6 °F) in the southern Meseta; nighttime temperatures range from 7 °C (44.6 °F) to 10 °C (50 °F).
Some Spanish authors want to distinguish an “inland” variant of this climate (sometimes called “continentalized” Mediterranean climate) which has lower temperatures in winter than the coastal areas. This distinction is rather a local nuance which does not appear in the world academic classifications.
The Mediterranean region is marked by Leveche winds: hot, dry, easterly or southeasterly air currents that originate over North Africa. Episodes of these winds, which sometimes carry fine Saharan dust are more likely in spring and are associated with a sudden, usually short-lived, increase in temperature. A cooler easterly wind, the Levante, funnels between the Sistema Penibetico and the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. These easterly winds are the ones which most influence the Mediterranean climate, for they are mild in temperature and humid.
The Galician variant (Csb climate): like the Csa climate, the summers are dry, but they are cooler due to the proximity of the ocean. The annual rainfall is higher than the other regions (about 1000 mm in A Coruna – ). This climate is sometimes classified as “oceanic” according to other authors like Trewartha, due to the lower summer temperatures. Nevertheless, the area has typical Mediterranean features, including the regular forest fires. This region keeps a high level of annual sunshine duration, generally more than 2000 hours. In North-West Castilla, the climate is classified also as Csb because the temperatures of summer are less hot due to the altitude.
The Semiarid climate (Bsk in the Köppen climate classification) can be found in the South-eastern part of Spain (covering most of Alicante, Murcia and Almería provinces), in some areas of the Ebro Valley too. Very hot in summer (temperatures can exceed 40 °C (104 °F), the drought extends beyond the summer (rainfall about 300 m – ). Very dry, virtually sub-desertic, rainfall as low as 150 mm (5.9 in) a year in the Cabo de Gata which is reported to be the driest place in Europe.