Norway, country of northern Europe that occupies the western half of the Scandinavian peninsula. Nearly half of the inhabitants of the country live in the far south, in the region around Oslo, the capital. About two-thirds of Norway is mountainous, and off its much-indented coastline lie, carved by deep glacial fjords, some 50,000 islands.
Indo-European peoples settled Norway’s coast in antiquity, establishing a permanent settlement near the present capital of Oslo some 6,000 years ago. The interior was more sparsely settled, owing to extremes of climate and difficult terrain, and even today the country’s population is concentrated in coastal cities such as Bergen and Trondheim. Dependent on fishing and farming, early Norwegians developed a seafaring tradition that would reach its apex in the Viking era, when Norse warriors regularly raided the British Isles, the coasts of western Europe, and even the interior of Russia; the Vikings also established colonies in Iceland and Greenland and explored the coast of North America (which Leif Eriksson called Vinland) more than a thousand years ago. This great tradition of exploration by such explorers as Leif Erikkson and his father, Erik the Red, continued into modern times, exemplified by such men as Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen, and Thor Heyerdahl. Weakened by plague and economic deterioration in the late Middle Ages and dominated by neighbouring Denmark and Sweden, Norwegians turned to trading in fish and lumber, and modern Norway, which gained its independence in 1905, emerged as a major maritime transporter of the world’s goods as well as a world leader in specialized shipbuilding. In the 1970s the exploitation of offshore oil and natural gas became the major maritime industry, with Norway emerging in the 1990s as one of the world’s leading petroleum exporters.
Lying on the northern outskirts of the European continent and thus avoiding the characteristics of a geographic crossroads, Norway (the “northern way”) has maintained a great homogeneity among its peoples and their way of life. Small enclaves of immigrants, mostly from southeastern Europe and South Asia, established themselves in the Oslo region in the late 20th century, but the overwhelming majority of the country’s inhabitants are ethnically Nordic. The northern part of the country, particularly the rugged Finnmark Plateau, is home to the Sami (also called Lapps or Laplanders), a Uralic people whose origins are obscure. Life expectancy rates in Norway are among the highest in the world. The main political division reflects differing views on the importance of free-market forces; but the socialists long ago stopped insisting on nationalization of the country’s industry, and the nonsocialists have accepted extensive governmental control of the country’s economy. Such evident national consensus—along with abundant waterpower, offshore oil, and peaceful labour relations—was a major factor in the rapid growth of Norway as an industrial nation during the 20th century and in the creation of one of the highest standards of living in the world, reinforced by a comprehensive social welfare system.
Northern lights illuminating the sky near Kautokeino, Norway.
Norway’s austere natural beauty has attracted visitors from all over the world. The country has also produced many important artists, among them composer Edvard Grieg, painter Edvard Munch, novelists Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset, and playwright Henrik Ibsen. Of his country and its ruminative people, Ibsen observed, “The magnificent, but severe, natural environment surrounding people up there in the north, the lonely, secluded life—the farms are miles apart—forces them to…become introspective and serious.…At home every other person is a philosopher!” Britannica QuizThe Country Quiz
With the Barents Sea to the north, the Norwegian Sea and the North Sea to the west, and Skagerrak (Skager Strait) to the south, Norway has land borders only to the east—with Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
Norway occupies part of northern Europe’s Fennoscandian Shield. The extremely hard bedrock, which consists mostly of granite and other heat- and pressure-formed materials, ranges from one to two billion years in age.
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Glaciation and other forces wore down the surface and created thick sandstone, conglomerate, and limestone deposits known as sparagmite. Numerous extensive areas called peneplains, whose relief has been largely eroded away, also were formed. Remains of these include the Hardanger Plateau—3,000 feet (900 metres) above sea level—Europe’s largest mountain plateau, covering about 4,600 square miles (11,900 square km) in southern Norway; and the Finnmark Plateau (1,000 feet [300 metres] above sea level), occupying most of Finnmark, the northernmost and largest county of Norway.
From the Cambrian through the Silurian geologic period (i.e., from about 540 to 415 million years ago), most of the area was below sea level and acquired a layer of limestone, shale, slate, and conglomerate from 330 to 525 feet (100 to 160 metres) thick. Folding processes in the Earth then gave rise to a mountain system that is a continuation of the Caledonian orogenic belt. Norway has an average elevation of 1,600 feet (500 metres), compared with 1,000 feet (300 metres) for Europe as a whole.
Scenic fjord, or sea inlet, winding deep into the mountainous coast of western Norway.
Rivers running westward acquired tremendous erosive power. Following fracture lines marking weaknesses in the Earth’s crust, they dug out gorges and canyons that knifed deep into the jagged coast. To the east the land sloped more gently, and broader valleys were formed. During repeated periods of glaciation in the Great Ice Age of the Quaternary Period (i.e., about the last 2.6 million years), the scouring action of glaciers tonguing down the V-shaped valleys that were then part of the landscape created the magnificent U-shaped drowned fjords that now grace the western coast of Norway. Enormous masses of soil, gravel, and stone were also carried by glacial action as far south as present-day Denmark and northern Germany. The bedrock, exposed in about 40 percent of the area, was scoured and polished by the movements of these materials.
There are four traditional regions of Norway, three in the south and one in the Arctic north. The three main regions of the south are defined by wide mountain barriers. From the southernmost point a swelling complex of ranges, collectively called Lang Mountains, runs northward to divide eastern Norway, or Østlandet, from western Norway, or Vestlandet. The narrow coastal zone of Vestlandet has many islands, and steep-walled, narrow fjords cut deep into the interior mountain region. The major exception is the wide Jæren Plain, south of Stavanger. An eastward sweep of the mountains separates northern Østlandet from the Trondheim region, or Trøndelag. Northern Norway, or Nord-Norge, begins almost exactly at the midpoint of the country. Most of the region is above the Arctic Circle, and much of it is filled with mountains with jagged peaks and ridges, even on the many islands.
The Glåma (Glomma) River, running south almost the entire length of eastern Norway, is 372 miles (600 km) long—close to twice the length of the two other large drainage systems in southern Norway, which meet the sea at the cities of Drammen and Skien. The only other long river is the 224-mile- (360-km-) long Tana-Anarjåkka, which runs northeast along part of the border with Finland. Norway has about 65,000 lakes with surface areas of at least 4 acres (1.5 hectares). By far the largest is Mjøsa, which is 50 miles (80 km) north of Oslo on the Lågen River (a tributary of the Glåma).
In the melting periods between ice ages, large areas were flooded by the sea because the enormous weight of the ice had depressed the land. Thick layers of clay, silt, and sand were deposited along the present coast and in large areas in the Oslo and Trondheim regions, which rise as high as 650 feet (200 metres) above sea level today. Some very rich soils are found below these old marine coastal regions. In the large areas covered by forests, the main soil has been stripped of much of its mineral content, and this has created poor agricultural land.
In the interior of the Østlandet region, farms are located along the sides of the broad valleys, the bottoms of which contain only washed-out deposits of soil. With rich glacier-formed soils, exceptionally mild winters, long growing seasons, and plentiful precipitation, the Jæren Plain boasts the highest yields of any agricultural area in Norway.
Climate of Norway
Although it occupies almost the same degrees of latitude as Alaska, Norway owes its warmer climate to the Norwegian Current (the northeastern extension of the Gulf Stream), which carries four to five million tons of tropical water per second into the surrounding seas. This current usually keeps the fjords from freezing, even in the Arctic Finnmark region. Even more important are the southerly air currents brought in above these warm waters, especially during the winter.
The mean annual temperature on the west coast is 45 °F (7 °C), or 54 °F (30 °C) above average for the latitude. In the Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle, the January mean is 43 °F (24 °C) above the world average for this latitude and one of the world’s greatest thermal anomalies. Norway lies directly in the path of the North Atlantic cyclones, which bring frequent gales and changes in weather. Western Norway has a marine climate, with comparatively cool summers, mild winters, and nearly 90 inches (2,250 mm) of mean annual precipitation. Eastern Norway, sheltered by the mountains, has an inland climate with warm summers, cold winters, and less than 30 inches (760 mm) of mean annual precipitation.
Plant and animal life
Norway spruce cones (Picea abies).
Norway has about 2,000 species of plants, but only a few, mainly mountain plants, are endemic to Norway. Thick forests of spruce and pine predominate in the broad glacial valleys up to 2,800 feet (850 metres) above sea level in eastern Norway and 2,300 feet (700 metres) in the Trondheim region. Even in the thickest spruce woods the ground is carpeted with leafy mosses and heather, and a rich variety of deciduous trees—notably birch, ash, rowan, and aspen—grow on even the steepest hillsides. The birch zone extends from 3,000 to 3,900 feet (900 to 1,200 metres) above sea level, above which there is a willow belt that includes dwarf birch.
In western Norway conifers and broad-leaved trees abound in approximately equal numbers. The largest forests in Norway are found between the Swedish border and the Glåma River, east of Oslo. About half of the Østlandet region is forested. The region also has about half of Norway’s total forest resources and an equivalent share of the country’s total area of fully cultivated land. Nearly one-third of the area of Trøndelag is forested. North of the Arctic Circle there is little spruce, and pine grows mainly in the inland valleys amid their surprisingly rich vegetation. Wild berries grow abundantly in all regions; they include blueberries and cranberries of small size as well as yellow cloudberries, a fruit-bearing plant of the rose family that is little known outside Scandinavia and Britain.
Reindeer, wolverines, lemmings, and other Arctic animals are found throughout Norway, although in the south they live only in the mountain areas. Elk are common in the large coniferous forests, and red deer are numerous on the west coast. Just 150 years ago large animals of prey were common in Norway, but now the bear, wolf, and lynx are found only in a few areas, mainly in the north. Foxes, otters, and several species of marten, however, are common, and in many areas badgers and beavers thrive.
The amazing journey of salmon in Norway
During the annual migration in Norway, salmon jumping up waterfalls.See all videos for this article
Of the large variety of birds, many migrate as far as Southern Africa for the winter. In the north people collect eggs and down from millions of seabirds, and, as far south as Ålesund, small cliff islands often are nearly covered by several hundred thousand nesting birds. Partridges and several kinds of grouse are common in the mountains and forests and are popular game birds.
In most parts of Norway the nucleus of the population is Nordic in heritage and appearance. Between 60 and 70 percent have blue eyes. An influx of people from southern Europe has been strong in southwestern Norway. Nord-Norge has about nine-tenths of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Sami—the country’s first inhabitants—living in Norway. Only a small number of them still practice traditional reindeer herding on the Finnmark Plateau. The Sami arrived in Norway at least 10,000 years ago, perhaps from Central Asia. Formerly subject to widespread, even official ethnic discrimination, the Sami are now legally recognized as a distinct culture and have been granted some measure of autonomy through the Sami Parliament.
In the first decades of the 21st century, an increasing number of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East began to transform Norway’s largely homogeneous population into a more ethnically diverse one.
Languages of Norway
The Norwegian language belongs to the North Germanic branch of the Germanic language group. The Norwegian alphabet has three more letters than the Latin alphabet—æ, ø, and å, pronounced respectively as the vowels in bad, burn, and ball. Modern Norwegian has many dialects, but all of them, as well as the Swedish and Danish languages, are understood throughout all three of these Scandinavian countries. Until about 1850 there was only one written language, called Riksmål, or “Official Language,” which was strongly influenced by Danish during the 434-year union of the two countries. Landsmål, or “Country Language,” was then created out of the rural dialects. After a long feud, mostly urban-rural in makeup, the forms received equal status under the terms Bokmål (“Book Language”) and Nynorsk (New Norwegian), respectively. For more than four-fifths of schoolchildren, Bokmål is the main language in local schools, and it is the principal language of commerce and communications. In daily speech Bokmål is predominant in the area around Oslo and the eastern Norwegian lowland, while Nynorsk is widely spoken in the mountainous interior and along the west coast.
Almost all educated Norwegians speak English as a second language. Indeed, so widespread is its use that some commentators have voiced concern that English may displace Norwegian in commerce and industry.
Harbour and castle in Oslo, Norway.
Østlandet contains more than half of Norway’s population, most of whom live in the metropolitan area of the national capital, Oslo, and in the many industrial cities and urban agglomerations on both sides of Oslo Fjord. With the lion’s share of the national wealth in mining and manufacturing and the concentration of economic activity around Oslo Fjord, Østlandet has the highest average income per household of Norway’s traditional regions.
Bergen, Norway, at twilight.
Norway has never had the agricultural villages that are common elsewhere in Europe. The more densely populated areas of the country have grown up around crossroads of transportation, from which people have moved to the cities and suburbs. Thus, there is actually little borderline between the rural and urban populations. For many years Oslo has attracted settlers from throughout the country, becoming a national melting pot surrounded by the most important agricultural and industrial districts of Norway. The coastline facing Denmark across the Skagerrak passage, stretching from Oslo Fjord to the southern tip of Norway, is densely populated and contains many small towns, coastal villages, and small farms. Centred on the city of Kristiansand, this area is sometimes set apart as a fifth region: southern Norway, or Sørlandet. In Vestlandet the industrial city of Stavanger has attracted large numbers of settlers and has continued to expand as Norway’s oil capital. Bergen, the capital of Vestlandet and Norway’s largest city from the Hanseatic period to the mid-19th century, is a centre for fish exports. Trondheim, the third largest city in Norway and for long periods the national capital, dominates Trøndelag. Tromsø is the capital of Nord-Norge and is a hub for various Arctic activities, including fishing, sealing, and petroleum exploration.
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