1088 Budapest, Rákóczi út 5.; Tel: (36 1) 381 23 47; E-mail: Ez az e-mail-cím a szpemrobotok elleni védelem alatt áll. Megtekintéséhez engedélyeznie kell a JavaScript használatát.
Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 28:25–32.


The Climate of the Balkan Area


To know is nothing, to imagine: everything!
(Anatole France: The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard)


The topic of the climate of South-Eastern Europe is incredibly rich. One cannot know enough about it; moreover, knowledge in itself is insufficient. An attempt should be made to imagine the variegated climate of the region and everything that ensues from it. In the following I wish to indicate how complicated the climate of the Balkan area is, and also to touch upon the regional problems that may derive from a possible global climate change.


The Topography of the Balkan Area and the Major Features of its Climate

As anywhere else so in the Balkan area too the climate of a given place is determined primarily by the geographic location of that place and its position relating to the pattern of the “general circulation”1 of the atmosphere. In addition to that the topography and hydrography also play a role, which is particularly important in the Balkan area. The Balkan Mountain range (’Haemus’ in Classical Latin, ’Stara Planina’ in Bulgarian meaning the ’Old Mountains’) is a watershed between the catchment area of the Danube north of it and of the Maritsa to the south. Its highest peak, the Botev is 2376 m. The mountain range is crossed by altogether twenty passes; the two most important ones are the Šipka pass and the valley of the River Iskur. The name ’Balkan’ is of Turkish origin meaning wooded mountain. This name was attached to the entire region by the German geographer E. Zeune in 1808.

The borders of the region are not unambiguous. Today the geographic borders may be regarded as settled, but the political ones change only too frequently. During the period of the Cold War for instance, it was customary to classify every European satellite state of the Soviet Union under the Balkan area (including Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland and Hungary) (at the same time Greece and the European part of Turkey were not listed under this category). Nowadays the situation in reversed. In tourist advertisements some countries that had been happy to be outside the Balkan area, present themselves as belonging to it. The beauty of landscape, its wilderness and untouched nature, the flora and fauna as well as the riches of heritage, etc., are major forces of attraction, and the region is being discovered also by lovers of winter sports.

Geographically the Balkan Peninsula is located between the Adriatic and the Black Seas. It is bordered by the line of the Rivers Sava and Danube, the Adriatic, the Ionian, the Cretan and the Thracian Seas as well as the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Its total territory (together with the adjacent islands) is about 560 thousand km2. About one quarter of the territory (precisely 85 thousand km2) is more than one thousand metres above the sea level.

In a political sense Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Greece, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bulgaria and the European part of Turkey are part of the Balkan space. In the following the climate of the entire Balkan region would be discussed.

It holds true for the entire stretch from the Adriatic to the gates of the Black Sea that the jaggedness of the coastline is the most pronounced in the whole of Europe. The coastline is edged by a series of islands and peninsulas. Fertile and rich basins hide occasionally among the mostly barren and sparsely inhabited mountains, and almost each basin prides itself with a mesoclimate of its own.

The ’wall’ of the Dinari Alps running parallel to the south-western coastline of the peninsula is a separating line for transport, climate and water. The Pindos Mountain range branches off from it to the south, and the Rodope and Balkan Mountain ranges to the east and southeast. These big and contiguous mountain ranges sharply separate the inner regions of the Balkans from those along the seas. At the same time the internal (more northern) area is almost totally open towards the east. The dry and cold eastern winds freely penetrate it. The climate of Transylvania is milder and has more precipitation than the other parts of Romania, for the semicircle of the Carpathians blocks the way to the west of the cold and dry winds coming from the east, and does not let the humid western winds move forward towards the east and southeast.

The maps of average temperature and precipitation also reflect that it is the Mediterranean climate that dominates along the marine strip stretching south of the Dinari Alps and particularly on the territory of Greece, whereas the climate of the rest (bigger part) of the area resembles much more to the Central-East European climate. This duality is undoubtedly the most important characteristic of the Balkans climate.

In winter the internal regions of the Balkan area are very cold, and they are almost unbearably hot in summer. Usually pleasant Mediterranean climate dominates along the coastline, but the winters are colder and the summers are warmer, compared to the usual temperature in other regions of the Mediterranean.

Basically the climate of the major part of the region is adverse. This is particularly true of the two broad strips on both sides of the Lower Danube. This region was called ’Moesia’ in the Classical Age, stretching from the Sava estuary down to the Black Sea. The Romanian part of this stretch is the Romanian Plain between the Southern Carpathian Mountains and the Danube, called Oltenia and Muntenia. The other strip running parallel to the former one between the Lower Danube and the Balkan Mountain range belongs to Bulgaria and is called the Bulgarian plateau. The southern side of the Balkan Mountain is steep, but its northern one gently slopes in a broad strip towards the north. Therefore a big part of the Bulgarian plateau receives significantly less insulation than its geographic latitude would justify. The part of the Balkan range above 1600 m is covered by snow from October to May.

The mountains cut up the area into narrow valleys. Hence precipitation as well as temperature may significantly differ even within short distances. The rivers are short and of rapid flow in the valleys. They are insignificant in respect of navigation. A temperature inversion often develops over the valleys locked by mountains, resulting in stagnating air and sometimes even lingering smog. This is the situation, for instance, in the basin five hundred metres above sea level where Sofia is situated.

A decisive portion of precipitation is brought in by the westerly winds. This is why a narrow strip along the coastal side of the Dinari Alps is extremely wet. The annual precipitation is above two thousand mm, and approximates five thousand mm in some places, whereas precipitation remains significantly below two thousand mm along the inner side of the Dinari mountain range. Moving towards the east inside the Balkan region precipitation keeps on dropping. One may speak about four hundred mm at places along the Black Sea. The annual distribution of precipitation is characterised by the fact that there is more of it in summer in the inner continental regions, whereas there is more precipitation in the Mediterranean coastal strip in winter. In Belgrade precipitation is the biggest in June (64 mm) and the least in February (39 mm). The situation at Pula is just the reverse: precipitation is the biggest in November (112 mm), and the least in July (43 mm).

As usual in the moderate zone, the climate is determined by the routes of the migratory cyclones. The role of the Mediterranean cyclone track is decisive. In winter the polar front is located south of the Balkan Peninsula, but it moves northwards in summer. Precipitation is largely dependent on the topographic factors. For instance, annual precipitation may be even above five thousand mm in the mountains around the Kotor Bay. Slopes at higher altitudes may receive precipitation of more than two thousand and five hundred mm annually in many places. More significant anomalies occur in winter.

The northern boundary of the dominance of the Mediterranean climate is the Rodope Mountain range. The Thracian Plain (the valley of the Maritsa) between the ensemble of Rila, Pirin and Rodope and the Balkan Mountains is equally under continental as well as Mediterranean influence, but the continental impact is stronger. Here climate is more severe than on territories of Europe located at similar latitude. (The transitory character of the climate results in a higher degree of variability of temperature and precipitation. Hence, significant differences may occur from one year to another.)

With the exception of the southern marine zone the climate of the Balkans resembles that of the Central-East European region. In Sofia the winter mean temperature is 2.7 °C and the summer one is 20.2 °C. May and June are the wettest months in parts north of the Balkan Mountains. Annual precipitation is mostly between eight hundred and one thousand mm. In the south that is on the marine strip there is little precipitation in summer. The higher parts of the Rila Mountain range are relieved of snow only for one month in summer. Even in Constantinople there are 13 days in the average when the daily mean temperature is negative.


An Attempted Summary of Descriptive Findings: Climatic Zones

It is customary to define climate types in order to make the description of climatic conditions easier to understand, and to mark the borders of the climatic zones on maps on this basis. The climate of the Balkan region, however, is too variegated and mosaic-like to offer much of an insight.

One stand may be that only two main climate types (continental and Mediterranean) should be defined. They more or less correspond to the ’Cf’ and ’Cs’ types belonging to the ’warm-moderate’ climate zone of the Köppen climate classification system. The former one is characterised by a flat annual distribution of precipitation, the latter by dry summer and winter maximum of precipitation. Following this way has two advantages: the characteristic duality of the climate of the region may be stressed better, and partly when a profound and exact description of the colourful details is given, there is no need to collate it with the generalisations of the different climate zones delimited in a complex manner.

According to another approach it is worth distinguishing at least four climate types instead of two. This is supported by the argument that there are real Mediterranean areas as well as areas only reflecting Mediterranean influence in the Balkan region. A. Székely (1968), for instance, distinguishes four climatic zones within the Balkan area.2 They are the following: 1. Mediterranean, 2. Transitory Mediterranean, 3. Transitory continental and 4. Continental. He classifies a significant part of Greece, the strips along the Ionian and Aegean Seas under the first climatic zone. The central part of the Dinarids, Central Macedonia, as well as the mass of the Rila-Rodope Mountains and the valley of the Tundja River fall into the second zone in this classification. He classifies the Macedonian and Thracian basins, the Central Mountains of Bulgaria and the Eastern Balkans as transitory continental saying that there are still some definite Mediterranean characteristics identifiable, but it is the continental climate that dominates. Finally, he classifies the areas of the Inner Dinari Mountains and the Lower Danube basin under the continental climatic zone.


A Brief Detour: Thoughts about the Relationship between the Balkan Climate and History

The best known books on the relationship between climate and history were written by the British climatologist Professor Hubert Horace Lamb, and he is regarded as the one who has elevated this topic to a scientific rank. Unfortunately I have found only indirect references to the Balkan region, whereas he dwelt on the Classical Greek and Roman cultures with great detail. (Those who are more interested in this topic can draw useful information from that work even about the Balkan region.)

The relationship between the geographic conditions of the Balkan region and its history was dealt with by the late Leften Stavrianos, Professor of the San Diego University. I myself find this topic of particular interest. Here I wish to underline as an example the role the Balkan Mountain range has played as an obstacle in the way of transport during the course of history.

Today the Balkan Mountain range is not such a frightful obstacle to transport as it used to be, but in winter when it is covered by heavy snow, it is still difficult to negotiate it. In history, however, the situation was different. Therefore the custom evolved in Roman times, and later on in the Byzantine Empire that the legions fought against the barbarians for eight months in a year, but returned to their families for the winter. It was not required of them to spend the severest months on the territory with unfriendly climate north of the Balkan Mountains. (This tradition was later on observed by the Turks too.)

Let me refer to a case described by J. J. Norwich3 when this custom was disregarded by the emperor, causing the fatal end for him, his family and supporters. The event took place in 602 A.D. Emperor Mauricius who reigned from 582, ordered the legions for economical reasons to stay on for the winter wherever they were.

The order provoked riots in the Pannonian camps; the soldiers lifted a centurion, a certain Phokas on their shield, and marched to Byzantium under his leadership. In the city Phokas, a real monster, had himself crowned Emperor, and had his predecessor, his family and all his followers massacred. One may regard this tragedy as (at least partially) caused by the climatic conditions.

Isn’t it the case that the climate of the area has also contributed to its unlucky history? Isn’t it the reason why the big empires used this area only as a military springboard?

It is a recent phenomenon that the Balkans is being gradually revaluated. Presumably we are only at the beginning of this process. The future may largely depend on how the good recipe of adapting to the special climatic conditions of the region can be found, with special regard to the fact, that these conditions are presumably undergoing changes.


Possible Future Changes of the Climate of the Balkan Region

Usually I do not agree with oversimplified and hasty conclusions. Sometimes a proposition emerges in writings related to climate change that it can be envisioned that the currently known climatic zones are simply shifting towards higher latitudes. All this would take place the same way as the zones of vegetation, insects and illnesses would migrate constantly northwards.

In Britain, for instance, one could read for years in newspapers that sometime in the future the climate of Britain would be like the present one in Southern France as a result of global warming. On this basis some people even began to fantasise that the same red wines would be produced in Britain that make the region of Bordeaux rich.

The same optimistic thoughts have crossed the Channel and reached us, even suggesting that the climate of the Balkan region may be interesting for us because as a result of global warming our climate is going to be the same as the one currently dominating that area.

Two fundamental things, however, cannot be disregarded. The first one is that the mountains and the sea coasts would not begin to migrate under the impact of the growth of carbon dioxide concentration, but would remain in place. These important climate-forming factors would continue to impact their location. The other fundamental point is that the growth of the greenhouse effect would not directly lead to the warming of the layer near the surface, but it would primarily change the overall pattern of the general circulation of the atmosphere. This is not a trivial process, and it cannot be comprehended by a simple qualitative argumentation. The only way to get an insight into this process leads through the dynamic modelling of the general circulation of the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, we may have assumptions. This is not prognostication but raising certain possibilities. It may be mentioned, for example, that in case of further greenhouse warming the major belts of the general circulation may shift northwards, together with the dry zone of descending air. The outcome then may be that the summer deficit of precipitation typical of the Mediterranean zone may become characteristic even in the area further to the north. This is expressly bad news, because the Balkan Peninsula and most of the Central and East European area is prone to occasional severe droughts already at present.




Gábris Gy. (Ed.): Európa. Regionális természetföldrajzi atlasz. (Europe. Regional Map of Natural Geography). ELTE, Eötvös Kiadó, Budapest, 1998.

Kocsis K. (Ed.): Délkelet-Európa térképekben. (South-Eastern Europe on Maps). Kossuth Kiadó, MTA Földrajztudományi Kutatóintézet, Budapest, 2005.

Lamb, H. H.: Climate, Present, Past and Future. Methuen, London, 1972, 1977.

Lamb, H. H.: Climate and History in the Modern World. Methuen, London, 1982.

Mendöl T.: A Balkán földrajza (The Geography of the Balkans). Balkán Intézet, Budapest, 1948.

Norwich, J. J.: Byzantium: The Early Centuries. Viking, London, 1988.

Péczely Gy.: Éghajlattan (Climate Studies). Tankönyvkiadó, Budapest, 1979.

Sowards, S. W.: Moderne Geschichte des Balkans. Der Balkan im Zeitalter des Nationalismus. BoD, 2004.

Stavrianos, L.: The Balkans Since 1453. NY University Press, 1958.

Székely A.: Az ezerarcú Balkán-félsziget (The Thousand-faced Balkan Peninsula). In: Marosi S.–Sárfalvi B. (Eds.): Európa Vol. I. Gondolat Kiadó, Budapest, 1968.



By “general circulation” of the atmosphere the entire complex system of air flow over the Globe is to be understood, including the trade winds, and the tracks of cyclones and anticyclones, etc.


Székely, A.: Az ezerarcú Balkán-félsziget (The Thousand Faced Balkan Peninsula) In: Marosi, S.–Sárfalvi, B. (Eds.): Európa. Vol. I., Gondolat Kiadó, Budapest, 1968.


Norwich, J. J.: Byzantium: The Early Centuries. Viking, London, 1988.