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Estonia, Land and Resources

Hiiumaa, Gulf of Riga, Saaremaa, major environmental problem, paper plants

Estonia covers an area of 45,227 sq km (17,462 sq mi). The country has more than 1,500 islands; the largest, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, separate the Gulf of Riga from the Baltic Sea. The mainland has a coastline 1,393 km (866 mi) long.

Estonia is mostly a low-lying plain, with some hills in the central and southern regions. Wetlands cover more than 20 percent of the country’s territory. Lakes and reservoirs cover an additional 5 percent, with the two largest lakes, Lake Peipus (Peipsi Jarv) on the eastern border and Vortsjarv in the south central part of the country, accounting for nearly four-fifths of the total lake surface area. The longest river in Estonia is the Parnu, which follows a southwesterly course and empties into the Gulf of Riga at Parnu Bay. Other important rivers include the Narva, which forms the republic’s northeastern border with Russia, and the Emajogi in the southeast, which is celebrated by Estonian poets.

Forests, mainly pine, birch, aspen, and fir, cover nearly 50 percent of Estonia’s territory. Elk and deer are common wildlife. Several species have been protected by legislation because of their small numbers, including the beaver, red deer, and willow grouse. Estonia’s natural resources include oil shale, peat (a carbon-rich material used as fuel and mulch), and phosphorite.

Estonia generally has cool summers and cold winters. Its marine location keeps the climate moderate, although temperatures can be slightly more extreme in the interior. Temperatures rarely exceed 18°C (64°F) in summer and often stay below freezing from mid-December to late February. Annual precipitation is moderate, ranging from 500 to 700 mm (19 to 27 in), and July and August are the wettest months. The combination of rain and melting snow in the spring often causes some flooding of rivers.

Industrial pollution is a major environmental problem in Estonia. Almost 100 percent (1998) of the electricity produced in Estonia is generated by thermal plants, which burn fossil fuels. Of specific concern are the country’s oil-shale-burning power plants, which heavily pollute air in the northeast with sulfur dioxide. These power plants, combined with Estonia’s chemical factories, paper plants, and other industries, emit very high levels of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and particulates (tiny solids suspended in the air). These emissions are linked to a decline in health among children and to eutrophication of the Baltic Sea. Coniferous forests in northern Estonia are damaged by acid rain. In many places, soil and groundwater are contaminated with petroleum products, and many of the country’s lakes are polluted with organic waste. The Gulf of Riga is severely polluted by industrial waste.

Environmental awareness is strong in Estonia, however. The Estonian government has enacted several environmental measures and has curtailed the expansion of phosphorite mining. Forest area is increasing 1 percent annually (1990-1996), and 12 percent (1997) of the country’s total land area is designated protected. The government has ratified international environmental agreements pertaining to biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, hazardous wastes, ozone layer protection, ship pollution, and wetlands.

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