Ukraine's Geography, Nature, Climate, and Demographics
Last updated: April, 2014
Location and time zone
Ukraine is situated between 44 and 52 degrees latitude in the continental temperate zone in Eastern Europe and has an area of 603,000 km2 (including Crimea). It borders Belarus on the north, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova on the west, and Russia on the east. Ukraine's time zone is 1 hour behind Moscow, 2 hours ahead of London, 7 hours ahead of New York City, 10 hours ahead of Los Angeles, and 5 hours behind Beijing.
Many visitors to Ukraine are surprised by how many hills there are. It is not as flat as people imagine; rather, the landscape tends to be rolling with pronounced river valleys and escarpments (see photo at top). There are true mountains on the Crimean peninsula in extreme southern Ukraine (rising to 1545 meters above sea level) and the extreme west (rising to 2061 meters in the Carpathians). The highest Carpathian peaks (Hoverla and others) are above treeline (about 1800 m) and have alpine meadows.
Ukraine has many rivers, including the Dnipro (Dniepr), Pivdennyy Buh ("Southern Buh"), Dnister, Siverskyy Donets, Desna, Dunay (Danube), and many others. Its southern border is washed by the Black Sea, which connects to the Mediterranean Sea through Turkey. Water actually flows into the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, because more water evaporates from the surface of the Black Sea than enters it via rivers like the Danube, Dnipro, and Don (Russia).
Yearly precipitation ranges from a semi-arid 350 mm in parts of Crimea and the extreme south to over 1500 mm on high Carpathian slopes. 90 percent of Ukraine receives between 450 and 700 mm a year, making it excellent for agriculture. Hours of sunlight per year are between 1600 and 2400, excepting the misty Carpathian peaks. 90 percent of Ukraine has snow on the ground between 40 and 100 days a year. Water temperatures at Black Sea beaches in summer months (June-September) are usually between 18 and 24° C (64.4 - 75.2° F). The warmest water — up to 27° C — is to be found in the Azov Sea — a large, shallow sea separated from the Black Sea by Kerch Strait.
Average temperatures in January range from 0 degrees Celsius (32° F) on Crimea's South Shore to -8° C (17.6° F) on the northeast border with Russia and between 18 (64.4° F) and 23° C (73.4° F) in July. Average yearly temperatures are 8-10° C over most of the country, with extremes from about -40° C to +40° C. There are four distinct seasons of the year.
Best time to visit Ukraine
Ideal sunny months to visit are mid-April through June when everything is in bloom and the sun isn't too hot and September and the first half of October when the temperatures are ideal and the leaves are changing. Throughout most of Ukraine be prepared for heat with thunderstorms and brief downpours from June through August, frequent rain in late October and November, and snow December through March. Fall colors reach their peak around October 15-25 and are most picturesque in Crimea and the Carpathians.
Vegetation and soil
Around half of Ukraine is blessed with chernozem soil (fertile "black earth"), roughly corresponding to its steppe zone (short and long-grass prairies with intermittent woods). Ukraine is the famous historical "breadbasket of Europe" — a land perfectly suited to growing many differnt kinds of crops in abundance. There is a belt of mixed pine and deciduous forest (some of it high in Chernobyl radiation) followed by broadleafed woods running through northwest Ukraine. Particularly memorable are the foggy Carpathian spruce forests and the diverse and peculiar vegetation of Crimea.
Cook using water from the cold water tap, as hot water undergoes less treatment. It is recommended to drink boiled water or filtered or bottled water. Many neighborhoods have free public wells with water fit to drink. Radiation levels are supposedly back to relatively safe levels around most of Ukraine, though official information on the subject can seem suspiciously sparse. Air quality in towns and cities is often poor, mostly due to cars, but also because of industry located within city limits. However, there are areas of each town where the air is relatively clean, and rural Ukraine usually has wonderfully fresh air.
Ukraine's population was 45.7 million as of 2011, down from a peak of 52,2 million right after the fall of the Soviet Union (1993). There are five cities with one million habitants or more, all predominantly Russian speaking: Kiev (officially 2.6 million), Kharkov (1.5 million), Donetsk (1.1 million), Dnepropetrovsk (1.1 million), and Odessa (1.0 million). Western Ukraine has more densely populated rural areas, but its largest city, Lviv, has only 790 thousand habitants. Ukraine is highly urbanized, with over 70% of the population living in cities.
Life expectancy for men is around 60-65 years, and 70-75 years for women. Low male life expectancy is tied to alcohol and drug abuse, work accidents, and stress and diet-related cardiovascular disease. Ukraine has one of the highest women-to-men ratios in the world. The population dropped 12% in the 17 years from 1993 to 2010 due to emigration, low birth rates, and higher mortality rates — all related to socioeconomic instability. Russia's birthrate has jumped back up to replacement levels as of 2013, but Ukraine's remains depressed. In 2012 its mortality rate per 1000 people was the 19th highest in the world.
In pre-WWII and pre-Soviet times Ukraine was more ethnically diverse, with many Jews, Poles, Armenians, Bulgarians, etc. World War II brought about greater homogeneity and a movement of ethnic Ukrainians to cities formerly dominated by other ethnic groups. After Ukrainians, the second largest ethnic group is Russians (15-22%). The divide between Russians and Ukrainians, though, is very often hazy, and friction between the two groups is minimal. There are people that identify themselves as Ukrainians but prefer to speak Russian, as well as Russians that prefer Ukrainian (read more on Ukraine's languages). There is a steadily growing population of Crimean tatars that have returned from Central Asia since Perestroika (Stalin had had them deported there after WWII) and have a higher birthrate. In addition to the above groups, large cities have an increasing number of foreign student-age youth, especially from Asian and Arab countries, as well as traders from Turkey, China, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. It is still quite rare in most places to see a non-Slavic face.