The Netherlands

Official name: Kingdom of the Netherlands

Area: 41,526 square kilometers (16,033 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Vaalserberg (321 meters/1,053 feet)

Lowest point on land: Prins Alexanderpolder (7 meters/23 feet below sea level)

Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern

Time zone: 1 P.M. = noon GMT

Longest distances: 312 kilometers (194 miles) from north to south; 264 kilometers (164 miles) from east to west

Land boundaries: 1,027 kilometers (638 miles) total boundary length; Germany 577 kilometers (359 miles); Belgium 450 kilometers (280 miles)

Coastline: 451 kilometers (280 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


The Netherlands (formerly also known as Holland) is located in Western Europe between Belgium and Germany, bordering the North Sea. With an area of about 41,526 square kilometers (16,033 square miles), the country is slightly less than twice the size of the state of New Jersey. The Netherlands is divided into twelve provinces.


The two island groups of the Netherlands Antilles and the island of Aruba are dependencies of the Netherlands. All of these islands are located in the Caribbean Sea. Aruba and the Antilles islands of Curaçao and Bonaire are located just north of Venezuela. The other group of Antilles islands—Saba, Stint, Eustatius, and Sint Maarten (the Dutch portion of Saint Martin)—are located farther north, east of the Virgin Islands.


The Netherlands shares the temperate maritime climate common in much of northern and western Europe. The average temperature ranges from 1°C to 5°C (34°F to 41°F) in January and from 13°C to 22°C (55°F to 72°F) in July. Because the Netherlands has few natural barriers, such as high mountains, the climate varies little from region to region. Annual precipitation averages 76 centimeters (30 inches).


The Netherlands may be divided into two main regions, one comprising areas below sea level, called the Low Netherlands, and the other including land above sea level, called the High Netherlands. These classifications are based not only on differences in elevation, but also on differences in geological formation. The High Netherlands was formed mainly in the Pleistocene Age (which began about two million years ago and ended about ten thousand years ago) and is composed chiefly of sand and gravel. The Low Netherlands is relatively younger, having been formed in the Holocene Age (fewer than ten thousand years ago), and consists mainly of clay and peat. There are other differences as well. The High Netherlands is undulating and even hilly in places, with farms alternating with woodland and heath. The Low Netherlands is predominantly flat, and is intersected by natural and artificial waterways. Dunes and dikes protect the Low Netherlands against flooding. The western and northern regions of the country consist of about five thousand polders (plots of land reclaimed from the sea), which cover over 2,500 square kilometers (950 square miles).


Seacoast and Undersea Features

The Netherlands has a western border on the North Sea, which is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates Great Britain from northwest Europe.

Sea Inlets and Straits

The Waddenzee is a shallow body of water that stretches along the northern coast of the country. It is separated from the North Sea by the West Frisian Islands and is protected as a popular nesting area for birds.

In the delta region at the southern coast, there are two major inlets: the Westerschelde and Oosterschelde.

Islands and Archipelagos

The West Frisian Islands were formed when the North Sea broke through a series of dunes along the Netherlands' ancient northern coastline. The area behind the dunes became the Waddenzee, while the tallest of the dunes remained intact, becoming the islands. From west to east, the largest of these islands are Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland, and Schiermonnikoog. Vlieland Island is the site of a national park.

Coastal Features

The North Sea coastline of the Netherlands consists mostly of dunes. The low-lying sandy dunes of the northwestern coastline were created by the action of wind and water. In some areas, they are nearly 30 meters (100 feet) high.

Further south, the major rivers flow into the North Sea and form the delta region. This area is characterized by islands connected by dikes or dams, and waterways connected by canals.


There are many small lakes located in the northern and western portions of the Netherlands. In the northeast, more than thirty lakes are interconnected by canals. Some of the largest of these are Lake Fluessen, Lake Sloter, and Sneek Lake. Southwest of these is the nation's largest lake, IJsselmeer, a freshwater lake that was formed by the construction of the Afsluitdijk Barrier (completed in 1932). Prior to construction of the dam, this body of water was a shallow, salty arm of the North Sea known as the Zuider Zee. It now covers an area of about 1,210 square kilometers (467 square miles). South of the IJsselmeer is Marker Lake (Markermeer), another freshwater lake enclosed by a dam.


The Rhine (Rheine) River and the Meuse (Maas) River dominate the western and central part of the country. The Rhine is considered to be the nation's longest river. With a total length of 1,319 kilometers (820 miles), the river is formed by the confluence of two tributaries in eastern Switzerland; it then flows north and northwest through Germany before reaching the Netherlands. Inside the Netherlands, it branches out into two major arms: the Neder Rijn (called Lek in its lower course) and the Waal. They flow west, roughly parallel to each other and never farther apart than about 30 kilometers (19 miles). Both branches have many tributaries entering and leaving them before they reach the North Sea.

The Meuse River is the largest tributary of the Rhine in the Netherlands. It enters the country in the far southeast and flows north to the middle of the country before curving to the west. In this part of its course it is only a few miles south of the Waal; eventually, the two rivers meet and flow into the North Sea.

The IJssel River is a major branch of the Neder Rijn. It branches off from the Neder Rijn shortly after that river's beginning. The IJssel flows north, receives a number of small tributaries, and then empties into Lake IJsselmeer.

The Schelde (Scheldt or Escaut) River enters the Netherlands from Belgium in the southwest. It almost immediately widens into a broad estuary and flows into the North Sea.


There are no desert regions in the Netherlands.


The western and northern regions of the country consist of polders (land reclaimed from the sea), where the water level is mechanically controlled to stay about 1 meter (3 feet) below ground level, thus permitting cultivation. There are also polders that were reclaimed by earthen dikes in the late nineteenth century. The soil of these polders is marshy and too wet to be used for cultivation, but it may be used for grazing livestock. Polders do not necessarily lie below sea level, although most of them do. For example, the IJsselmeer polders are 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) below sea level, polders created by draining lakes can lie as much as 6.7 meters (22 feet) below sea level. In areas of young marine clay and along the rivers, many polders lie above the average sea level; consequently, it is not always necessary to pump the water out. Almost half of the land area of the Netherlands is made up of polders.


The Netherlands was once famous for its windmills. Though these structures once covered the countryside, now there are many fewer operational windmills than before the invention of steam engines and other, more powerful, sources of energy.

The highest point is Vaalserberg (321 meters/1,053 feet) in the hills of the South Limburg Plateau on the German border. Low hills created as the result of ancient glacial activity can be found in the eastern part of the country. These reach elevations of only about 100 meters (328 feet).


There are no significant mountain ranges in the Netherlands.


Near the city of Maastricht, the Caves of Mount St. Pieter were created by the excavation of marl, a stone used for building. The caves are connected through a labyrinth of over twenty thousand passageways. During World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939–45), military personnel and civilians used the caves as emergency shelters and escape routes.

There are nearly 180 inactive limestone quarry mines scattered throughout the southern Limburg province. In the past, the fine-grained limestone has been used as a main ingredient in mortar, white paint, and chalk.


The South Limburg Plateau is the only part of the country not classified as lowland. The hills, some of which rise to over 300 meters (1,000 feet), comprise the foothills of the Central European Plateau. This is also virtually the only area of the country where rocks can be found at or near surface levels.


The Netherlands is famous for its vast system of dams and dikes, some of which date back many centuries. They were constructed to reclaim large swaths of land from the sea and stabilize the coastlines. Two of the most impressive are the Afsluitdijk and the Oosterschelde.

The Afsluitdijk is the largest and most famous dike in the Netherlands. It is a closure dike that connects the province of North Holland with Friesland. Construction of the 32-kilometer-long (20-mile-long) system separated the Waddenzee from the newly created lake of Ijsselmeer.

The Oosterschelde Dam serves as a barrier that crosses the Oosterschelde inlet on the southern coast. The dam is 3 kilometers (2 miles) long and contains sixty-five pillars supporting sixty-two iron floodgates.

The Netherlands has an extensive system of canals that run throughout almost the entire country. The North Sea Canal connects Amsterdam and Marker Lake to the North Sea. The Amsterdam-Rhine River Canal just one of several waterways that connect the city and that river. A network of canals—including the Wilhelmina, Zuid-Willems, and Juliana Canals—connects the southern part of the country to the Rhine River and to other canals in Belgium. In addition, many of the Netherlands's natural rivers, including all of its largest rivers, have had their shores reinforced (canalized) to prevent them from flooding or from shifting their courses.



Blom, J. C. H., and E. Lambert. History of the Low Countries. Translated by James C. Kennedy. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1999.

Dash, Mike. Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused. New York: Crown, 2000.

Hintz, Martin. The Netherlands . New York: Children's Press, 1999.

Stergen, Theo van. The Land and People of the Netherlands . New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Web Sites

The Royal Dutch Geographical Society (KNAG). (accessed April 11, 2003).

Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, DC. (accessed April 11, 2003).

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