France

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The chief physiographic features of France are its natural eastern and southern boundaries, a south-central plateau, and, contiguous to the plateau, a vast region of rolling plains. A series of massive mountain ranges, including a number of ranges of the Alps and the Jura, form natural boundaries at the Franco-Italian and most of the Franco-Swiss borders. With flanking chains and foothills, these ranges dominate the area east of the south-central plateau. Many of the Alpine mountains extending across and along the French border are more than 3, 962 m (13, 000 ft) above sea level; Mont Blanc (4, 807 m/15, 771 ft) is the second highest peak on the continent. The Jura, which have a maximum elevation, on the Franco-Swiss boundary, of about 1, 710 m (5, 600 ft), delineate the eastern frontier of France from the eastern extension of the Rhone Valley to the Belfort Gap, the broad depression linking the basins of the Rhine and the Saone rivers. From the edge of the Belfort Gap to the north-eastern corner of France, the Franco-German border is formed by the River Rhine. The Vosges mountains, extending north from the Belfort Gap, dominate the region between the Moselle and the Rhine. The highest elevations in the Vosges Mountains reach about 1, 435 m (4, 700 ft). The Pyrenees, which extend along the Franco-Spanish frontier from the Mediterranean Sea to the Bay of Biscay, form the other mountain boundary of France. Pic de Vignemale (3, 298 m/10, 820 ft) is the highest French peak in the Pyrenees. The Pyrenees are traversed by few passes, a circumstance that has traditionally hampered commerce between France and Spain. The Alpine and other ranges in the east are, however, broken by gaps and passes, notably the passes of St Bernard.
The south-central plateau, known as the Massif Central, is separated from the eastern highland region by the valley of the River Rhone. This elevated region has an irregular relief and conformation. The plateau, rising gradually from the plains region on the north and west, is characterized by volcanic outcroppings; by deeply eroded limestone tablelands to the south of the region of extinct volcanoes; and, farther to the south, by the Cevennes, a series of highlands rising from the Mediterranean coastal depressions.
The plains region, by far the most extensive section of the terrain of France, is a projection of the Great Plain of Europe. Except for a few hilly outcroppings, chiefly in the west-central portion, the French plains consist of gently undulating lowlands, with an elevation of about 200 m (650 ft) above sea level. The outstanding features of the plains region, the most fertile in France, are the valleys of the Seine, Loire, and Garonne rivers. Together with numerous tributaries, these rivers drain the Atlantic watershed of France. The River Rhone is the largest in the country in terms of volume of discharge. With its tributaries, particularly the Saone, Isere, and Durance, it drains the French Alpine region. Among the ...


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