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Physical Features of Estonia

Updated on April 13, 2014

Estonia is an independent republic in northeastern Europe on the east coast of the Baltic Sea. The northernmost of the three Baltic States, it consists of a mainland area and some 1,500 islands and islets. From the 13th to the 20th century it was ruled by foreign powers, but the Estonian people continued to foster their own culture and language. Estonia was independent from 1918 until 1940, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union. It regained its independence in 1991 and joined the European Union (EU) in 2004.

Estonia has a generally low-lying terrain, with a topography carved by the retreating ice sheet of the Quaternary Period. The Baltic Sea coast is marked by a sharply indented cliff line in the north on the Gulf of Finland and is low and sandy in the west on the Gulf of Riga. About a tenth of Estonia consists of islands, the largest of which are Saaremaa (Ösel), Hiiumaa (Dagö), Muhu (Mohn), and Vormsi (Worms), all off the west coast. A causeway links Muhu with Saaremaa. The mainland has a broad plain along the west coast; a narrower, low strip along the north; and hills in the interior. In the north-central part are the Pandivere Hills; in the southeast are the Otepää Hills and the Haanja Hills. The highest point in Estonia is Suur Munamägi Hill (1,043 feet, or 318 meters), in the Haanja Upland.

Karula National Park, Estonia
Karula National Park, Estonia | Source

Forming most of the border between Estonia and the Russian Federation is Lake Peipus, the country's most important body of inland water. The lake receives Estonia's main river, the Emajõgi, which rises in another lake, Võrts-Järv, and flows 63 miles (101 km) east to Lake Peipus. The Narva River, also on the border with Russia, flows from Lake Peipus to the Gulf of Finland.

The climate is transitional between the maritime climate of western Europe and the continental conditions of the Russian interior. Mean temperatures in January range from 27° F (-3° C) in the western islands to 20° F (-7° C) in the southeast. The sea near the coast is covered by ice for one to three months, though some bays, such as Tallinn, sometimes remain ice free. Average July temperatures range from 60° to 65° F (15°–18° C). Average precipitation is 24 to 28 inches (610–710 mm).


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About 35% of Estonia is woodland, mostly pine, fir, and birch. More than 30% of the country is waterlogged, half of this area forming actual swamps. The most fertile land is found in the north-central section, between Võrts-Järv and the Pandivere Hills.

The leading mineral resource is oil shale, found in the northeast. Other resources are phosphate rock, peat, clay, limestone, and dolomite.

Power plants burning shale oil have generated considerable amounts of sulfur dioxide in the northeast. Air pollution, however, has been substantially reduced. Emissions in the year 2000 were 80% less than those in 1980. Nevertheless the EU has pressed Estonia to reduce it reliance on shale oil. In 2007 Estonia joined with other Baltic states and Poland in approving the construction of a new nuclear plant in Lithuania that would serve all four countries. In 2008 it also began to study the possibilities of building its own nuclear plant and participating in a Finnish plant. Since 2006 Estonia has been connected to Finland's power grid by a submarine cable project called Estlink.


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