|Published by the Swedish Institute March 1999 Classification: FS 105 e Nc
Geography of Sweden
Despite its small population and large area, Sweden is a technologically advanced country with good infrastructure, including an efficient transportation and communications system. Geographically speaking, it is characterized by its long coastlines, large forests and numerous lakes.
Sweden is one of the countries on earth located furthest from the Equator. It extends from north to south at roughly the same latitude as Alaska or -- in the Southern Hemisphere — the stretch of ocean between Cape Horn in South America and the Antarctic continent.
In terms of area it is similar to Spain, Thailand or California. In population, it is in the same league as Belgium, Ecuador or New Jersey.
A land of ancient bedrock, Sweden was settled later than most countries; yet its national government has relatively old roots. By the 16th century Sweden had evolved into a strongly centralized nation, with Stockholm as its capital. The size of the country has changed over the centuries; Finland was part of Sweden until 1809. What is now southern and western Sweden was conquered in 1658 from the then Danish-Norwegian union. During certain periods Sweden also had provinces on the southern and Eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, and even colonies in North America and the West Indies. In 1905, a nearly century-old union with Norway was dissolved, but since 1812 Sweden's borders have been unchanged and the country and the country have been spared from war since 1814.
Today the Nordic countries (Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland), whose central portion is called Scandinavia, cooperate closely in many fields. Sweden has a tradition of nonalignment aiming at neutrality in the event of war. Through its membership in many international organizations, including the United Nations (since 1946) and the European Union (since 1995), Sweden nevertheless plays an active role in international cooperation.
Sweden is situated in a geologically very stable portion of the great Eurasian land mass. The southernmost part of the country (Skåne, sometimes called Scania) is a continuation of the fertile plains of Denmark and northern Germany. Further north is a heavily wooded highland region (Småland) with soils that are less rich. The rest of southern Sweden consists of a fairly level but fragmented landscape of primary rock with a varied terrain of fields, hills and lakes that is especially typical of the broad zone between the cities of Stockholm and Göteborg (Gothenburg).
North of this belt is a borderline area separating the more southerly regions from the terrain of Norrland - the region comprising the northern three-fifths of Sweden - with its rolling landscape of hills and mountains, forests and large river valleys. Along this borderline are deposits of iron and other ores, which gave rise to Sweden's oldest industrial region, Bergslagen. Further north are the copper, lead and zinc ores of the Viisterbotten region and the large iron ore deposits of Kiruna and Gällivare-Malmberget. In these northerly areas as in much of Sweden, however, granite and gneiss predominate.
The western border between Sweden and Norway mainly follows the Scandinavian mountain range. Its peaks, rising 1,000-2,000 meters (or some 3,000-7,000 feet) above sea level, were folded during the Silurian and Devonian periods but were raised during the Tertiary period. Sweden's largest rivers originate in these mountains.
Also dating from more recent times (the Cambro-Silurian era) is the sand and limestone bedrock found on Öland and Gotland--two large, mainly flat islands in the Baltic--and in some other places in southern and central Sweden.
During several periods, Scandinavia has been covered by inland ice. The most recent Ice Age ended only about 10,000 years ago. The weight and movement of the ice sheet altered the landscape. The hard cliffs of primary rock were polished into the rounded shapes characteristic of Sweden's archipelagoes. Hollows were deepened into valleys and lakes. Gravel, boulders, sand and clay created irregular moraine strata. Glacial rivers polished and rounded the stones and bits of gravel which were deposited in glacial estuaries and gravel ridges. These sandy ridges served for a long time as transportation routes in the humid lowlands, and the ridges were later important as sand pits. Finely ground material that sank slowly to the sea bottom outside the ice cap now forms the fertile clays of the central plains.
Natural scenery, flora and fauna
Much of the Swedish landscape is dominated by coniferous forests, in southern Sweden often blended with such deciduous trees as birch and aspen. Deciduous forests (beech, oak) used to grow along the southern and southwestern coast but have been replaced by farmland and in recent years also by planted coniferous forest. But these and other hardwoods such as linden, ash, maple and elm trees are found throughout southern Sweden up to the border of Norrland. Other vegetation follows largely the same geography. Because of their lime-rich bedrock and favorable local climate, Gotland, Öland and parts of the Scandinavian mountain range have an interesting flora that includes numerous varieties of orchids.
Sweden's fauna has been determined by the climate and history of the period since the last Ice Age and by human settlement. While the wolf has been almost completely eradicated, bears and lynx still inhabit the northern forests. Throughout the country are large numbers of moose (elk), roe deer, foxes and hares. The moose is a great prize for hunters but is also a traffic hazard. Hunting is closely regulated, and many species of animal are fully protected. Winter bird life in Sweden is dominated by a few species, but summer brings large numbers of migratory birds from more southerly climes. With its long coasts and many lakes, Sweden has a rich variety of waterborne life, but environmental pollution has taken its toll. This applies, not least, to the Baltic seals. Fish species vary from the cod and mackerel of the deep, salty Atlantic to the salmon and pike found in the far less saline Gulf of Bothnia and in lakes and rivers. Herring and its smaller relative the Baltic herring used to be an important staple, but today they are among the delicacies served on the Swedish smörgåsbord, a festive buffet.
To protect its sensitive natural scenery and examples of its cultural heritage, in 1910 Sweden was the first European country to establish national parks, mainly in the mountainous districts of Norrland but also elsewhere in the country. In this way, part of Europe's last wilderness was saved from exploitation. Numerous nature reserves and cultural heritage areas have also been established to protect environments regarded as important to preserve.
Under the customary right of common access, anyone is entitled to hike through the forests and fields and pick berries and mushrooms, without asking the landowner's permission, but this right also carries with it an obligation to respect natural scenery and private property.
Sweden's climate is a function of the country's location in the border zone between Arctic and warmer air masses as well as its proximity to the Atlantic, with its warm Gulf Stream.
Because of the tilt in the earth's axis and its rotation around the sun, the polar regions experience an extreme contrast between long summer days and equally long winter nights. In the summer, sunlight lasts around the clock in the portion of Sweden located north of the Arctic Circle, but even as far south as Stockholm (59N) the June nights have only a few hours of semi-darkness.
Considering its geographic location Scandinavia enjoys a very favorable climate. Atlantic low pressure areas often blow in warmth and precipitation from the south-west. The weather is changeable; a few hours of rain are often followed by sunlight and wind the next day and then new rainfall. Given this type of weather, the temperature differences between night and day, summer and winter, are not so great-especially in western Sweden. Another type of weather, however, creates a more contrasting climate: high pressure zones to the east, which create stable, dry, sunny weather. This high pressure leads to hot spells in summer and cold ones in winter. The battle between the more temperate Atlantic weather and the more extreme continental weather is an important reality to farmers and vacationers. The difference between the weather in southern and northern Sweden is slight in the summer, when Norrland warms up because of its very long days.
Fall and winter arrive early in the northern interior, while the southern coastal areas enjoy long, mild fall weather. Nordand has colder and longer winters than southern Sweden, where there is often rain interspersed with snowfall.
Like the animal population, the first human beings are believed to have migrated into Scandinavia from the south after the ice cap withdrew northward, but some of the population, probably including the Sami people, came from the east.
About 1,000 years ago a national government began to take shape, centered among the fertile farmlands and waterways around Lake Mälaren. By the 16th century, when Sweden became a centralized state, the country had fewer than a million inhabitants within its present-day borders. During the 19th century, when Sweden enjoyed peace, the population began to grow rapidly. This resulted in a large wave of migration to the expanding forestry operations and wood product industry of Norrland, to industrial jobs in Swedish urban areas, as well as abroad to the cities and prairies of North America. Over a million of the country's inhabitants emigrated during the period 1865-1914.
From an ethnic standpoint, Sweden has traditionally been a very homogeneous country. Swedish - a Germanic language - has historically been the mother tongue of nearly the entire population, and some 90% of native Swedes belong to the Church of Sweden which was the State church for nearly 500 years. However, since World War II, the ethnic and religious composition of the population has changed and today roughly 18% of Swedish residents are foreign-born or have at least one non-native parent. Most immigrants have come from the neighboring Nordic countries, with which Sweden has a common labor market, and from elsewhere in Europe. For non-EU nationals, immigration is strictly regulated today but Sweden still accepts certain categories of immigrants and refugees.
In addition, Sweden has two minority groups of native inhabitants: the Finnish-speaking people of the northeast, along the Finnish border (about 30,000) and the Sami (Lapp) population of about 17,000. The Sami are scattered throughout the northern Swedish interior and in nearby northerly areas of Norway, Finland and Russia, numbering between 50,000 and 60,000 in all. Once a hunting and fishing people, they developed a reindeer herding system which they carry out very efficiently today, although most Sami in Sweden have other occupations.
Patterns of settlement
About 80% of Sweden's inhabitants live in settlements of 500 or more people. The most densely populated areas lie in the triangle formed by the three largest cities - Stockholm, Göteborg and Malmö - and along the Baltic coastline north of the capital. The interior of Norrland is very sparsely populated, which creates problems in supplying adequate services and transport facilities to its inhabitants.
By means of heavy government subsidies, the country's housing stock has been modernized very rapidly, and nearly all inhabitants live in homes which are technically very well equipped, even in the countryside. About 40% of the people live in apartment houses and 60% in single- or two-family houses. Seventy per cent of all households with children fall into the latter category.
Over a long period of history, Swedish farmers lived together in small villages with common grazing lands and allotments in common croplands. During the 18th and 19th centuries the national government implemented a major series of reforms which divided up the commons, brought together the scattered allotments of each farming family and moved their farmhouse to their "new" consolidated property. These reforms accelerated the technical development of Swedish agriculture but also had social consequences.
An abundance of second homes--more than 600,000 of them in all - is characteristic of Sweden. There are large areas of recently built summer cottages along the coasts and lakes, especially near the three largest cities, but city dwellers have also acquired abandoned crofts and small farms. Construction is regulated to ensure that beaches and other valuable natural areas are accessible to everyone.
Good transportation and communications systems have always been vital to a country of Sweden's size and sparse population. The national government which emerged in the 16th century organized the country's road network and transportation system. For centuries, shipping was dominant, with Stockholm as the main Baltic port. During the 17th century, Göteborg was established as an exporting harbor. Exports of timber led to the creation of ports along the Norrland coast.
In the mid-19th century, the Swedish government built a nationwide network of railroad trunk lines. The railroads and new steelmaking processes made it possible to begin mining the large high-phosphorus ore deposits of the north. Hydroelectric power was transmitted from the major waterfalls of Norrland to industrial plants and large cities further south. In recent years, nuclear power plants at four locations along the southern and central Swedish coasts have supplemented this north-to-south electric power system. There is an extensive network of highways, with freeways (motorways) following the triangle between the three largest cities and continuing to the north. Remote rural areas usually have very good main highways, often constructed as government-financed relief work projects. After along debate on possible environmental impact, in 1997 Sweden and Denmark started to build a 16 km (10 mi) bridge/tunnel between Malmö and the Danish capital of Copenhagen, which was completed in 2000 and thereby simplified transportation in Scandinavia's largest single population center. The domestic air traffic network is well-developed, and Scandinavian cooperation has resulted in good airline connections with the whole world.
Most Swedish families have their own car. Many cities have an extensive network of bus lines, operated and subsidized by municipal governments and county councils. Large cities have such additional transit amenities as subways, streetcars and commuter trains which are coordinated with other local transportation facilities.
Although nowadays less than 3% of Sweden's labor force works in agriculture and less than 10% of the country's area consists of farmland, agriculture is still an important sector of the Swedish economy. The largest agricultural acreage and the highest productivity are found in southernmost Sweden, where specialization in grain and pork production predominates. In Norrland, the production of fodder crops, meat and milk predominates. Farming takes place as far north as the border with Finland, where an intensive summer season and fertile river sediments provide good prerequisites for growing vegetables. Nearly all Swedish farms are operated by individual families and are relatively small, but in the most important agricultural districts, larger units also exist. Despite a sharp reduction in the number of farms and crop acreage, production has increased, and with the exception of a few products, Sweden is self-sufficient in agriculture.
Of Sweden's forest land, the national government owns only 5% (mostly in the north), forest companies own 37% (mainly in north central Sweden) and individual owners, mainly farmers, own 50%.
Fishing is a small sector of the national economy nowadays. Because fishing zones have been redrawn by international agreements, Sweden has lost some of its traditional fishing areas in the North Sea and the emphasis has shifted to the Baltic.
Mining has diminished in relative importance, but in northern Sweden the iron ore fields of Kiruna are at the center of a railroad line from the Baltic steel mill center of Luleå and the ice-free Atlantic export harbor of Narvik, Norway.
Sweden's rich natural resources - its forests, ore deposits and hydroelectric power - constitute the historical basis of its industrial economy, but the emphasis has shifted toward increasingly advanced products, often still based on such indigenous raw materials as timber and metals.
The timber and wood product industry is, of course, located close to its sources of raw material. The pulp and paper industry is often situated at the mouths of rivers running through forest regions - including a number along the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia and of Vänern, Sweden's largest lake. Production is concentrated at large, efficient mills, nowadays also including units located in southern Sweden.
Sweden's metal industry still follows a pattern from the days when water power and timberland (for charcoal fuel) determined the location of iron mills. The iron and steel industry is thus still concentrated in Bergslagen. The iron and steel mills in coastal Oxelösund and Luleå were built in the 20th century. Otherwise, metal based industries are dispersed throughout southern and central Sweden and along the Nordand coast. The automotive and aerospace industry has its main plants in south central Sweden (Göteborg, Trollhättan, Linköping, and Södertälje). The electrical and electronics industry is concentrated in Stockholm and Västerås.
The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries are undergoing strong expansion, especially in the university cities of east central Sweden and in Skåne.
Distributive trade, transportation, administration and services comprise a larger percentage of the national economy than industry in terms of employees, but account for a small but increasing proportion of exports. This sector is concentrated mainly in major cities, especially Stockholm.
Sweden is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government based on a one chamber legislature. A majority of the Swedish Parliament approves the selection of a Prime Minister who forms a Cabinet (or Government). Members of this Cabinet head some ten ministries, which formulate policy in their respective fields and supervise a larger number of agencies, which enforce the national laws.
To facilitate the administration of national government policies on the regional level, Sweden is divided into 21 counties, each headed by a Governor who is a Cabinet appointee. The county is often contiguous with the district served by the regionally elected county council, which is responsible for medical care, regional traffic and transit planning and other matters too large in scope for individual municipalities. A third type of region is the historical province, which has no political significance but is important for people's sense of regional identity.
Local government in Sweden is exercised by 289 municipalities, which cover the entire country. Until 1952 there were more than 2,600 local governments, ranging from rural districts to the capital. These were merged into larger units in two stages in order to create viable units consisting of a municipal center and a surrounding territory. Their responsibilities include zoning and city planning, much of the educational system, social welfare, child care, fire protection, recreational and cultural amenities.
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