Generally speaking, Poland is an unbroken plain reaching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south. Within that plain, terrain variations generally run in bands from east to west. The Baltic coast lacks natural harbors except for the Gdansk-Gdynia region and Szczecin in the far northwest. The northeastern region, called the Lake District, is sparsely populated and lacks agricultural and industrial resources. To the south and west of the lake district, a vast region of plains extends to the Sudeten (Sidetu) Mountains on the Czech and Slovak borders to the southwest and to the Carpathians on the Czech, Slovak, and Ukrainian borders to the southeast. The country extends 649 kilometers from north to south and 689 kilometers from east to west. Poland's total area is 312,683 square kilometers, including inland waters--a slightly smaller area than that of New Mexico. The neighboring countries are Germany to the west, the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic the south, Ukraine and Belarus to the east, and Lithuania and the Russian province of Kaliningrad to the northeast.
The average elevation of Poland is 173 meters, and only 3 percent of Polish territory, along the southern border, is higher than 500 meters. The highest elevation is Mount Rysy, which rises 2,499 meters in the Tatra Range of the Carpathians, 95 kilometers south of Kraków. About 60 square kilometers along the Gulf of Gdansk are below sea level. Poland is traditionally divided into five topographic zones from north to south. The largest, the central lowlands, is narrow in the west, then expands to the north and south as it extends eastward. Along the eastern border, this zone reaches from the far northeast to within 200 kilometers of the southern border. The terrain in the central lowlands is quite flat, and earlier glacial lakes have been filled by sediment. The region is cut by several major rivers, including the Oder (Odra), which defines the Silesian Lowlands in the southwest, and the Vistula (Wisla), which defines the lowland areas of east-central Poland.
To the south of the lowlands are the lesser Poland uplands, a belt varying in width from ninety to 200 kilometers, formed by the gently sloping foothills of the Sudeten and Carpathian mountain ranges and the uplands that connect the ranges in southcentral Poland. The topography of this region is divided transversely into higher and lower elevations, reflecting its underlying geological structure. In the western section, the Silesia-Kraków Upthrust contains rich coal deposits.
The third topographic area is located on either side of Poland's southern border and is formed by the Sudeten and Carpathian ranges. Within Poland, neither of these ranges is forbidding enough to prevent substantial habitation; the Carpathians are especially densely populated. The rugged form of the Sudeten range derives from the geological shifts that formed the later Carpathian uplift. The highest elevation in the Sudeten is 1,602 meters, in the Karkonosze Mountains. The Carpathians in Poland, formed as a discrete topographical unit in the relatively recent Tertiary Era, are the highest and most picturesque mountains in the country. They are the northernmost edge of a much larger range that extends into Czechsolvakia, Ukraine, Hungary, and Romania. Within Poland the range includes two major basins, the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and Sandomierz, which are rich in several minerals and natural gas.
To the north of the central lowlands, the lake region includes the only primeval forests remaining in Europe and much of Poland's shrinking unspoiled natural habitat. Glacial action in this region formed lakes and low hills in the otherwise flat terrain adjacent to Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. Small lakes dot the entire northern half of Poland, and the glacial formations that characterize the lake region extend as much as 200 kilometers inland in western Poland. Wide river valleys divide the lake region into three parts. In the northwest, Pomerania is located south of the Baltic coastal region and north of the Warta and Notec rivers. Masuria occupies the remainder of northern Poland and features a string of larger lakes. Most of Poland's 9,300 lakes that are more than one hectare in area are located in the northern part of the lake region, where they occupy about 10 percent of the surface area.
The Baltic coastal plains are a low-lying region formed of sediments deposited by the sea. The coastline was shaped by the action of the rising sea after the Scandinavian ice sheet retreated. The two major inlets in the smooth coast are the Pomeranian Bay on the German border in the far northwest and the Gulf of Gdansk in the east. The Oder River empties into the former, and the Vistula forms a large delta at the head of the latter. Sandbars with large dunes form lagoons and coastal lakes along much of the coast.
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