Moldova lies to the east of the great arc of the Carpathian Mountains. It is underlain mostly by deep sedimentary rocks covering the south-western portion of the ancient structural block known as the Russian, or East European, Platform. Harder crystalline rocks outcrop only in the north. Its surface is a hilly plain, with an average elevation of 482 feet (147 metres), cut by a deep network of river valleys, ravines, and gullies.
The uplands of the centre of the republic, the Codri Hills, lie at an average elevation of about 1,150-1,300 feet, and the highest point, Mount Balanesti, in the west, reaches 1,407 feet (429 metres). These uplands are interlaced by deep, flat valleys, ravines, and landslide-scoured depressions separated by sharp ridges. Steep, forest-clad slopes account for much of the terrain. The Dniester (Moldovan: Nistru) uplands, their eastern slopes forming the high right bank of the Dniester River, border the central uplands on the east and northeast.
The northern landscape of Moldova is characterised by the level plain of the Balti steppe (500 to 650 feet in elevation) and also by uplands averaging twice this height, culminating in Vysokaya Hill (1,053 feet). The northern uplands include the strikingly eroded Medobory-Toltry limestone ridges, which border the Prut River.
In the south, the extensive Bugeac Plain is broken by numerous ravines and gullies, while, in the east, left-bank Moldova includes spurs of the Volyn-Podolsk Upland cut into by tributaries of the Dniester.
Moldova has a well-developed network of about 3,000 rivers and streams, all draining south to the Black Sea, but only 246 of these exceed 6 miles (10 kilometres) in length and only 8 exceed 60 miles. The Dniester, the rapidly flowing main artery, is navigable almost throughout the republic; the river becomes swollen by spring snowmelt from the Carpathians and by heavy summer rains. It does not freeze over during warmer winters.
The other, smaller, main artery, the Prut, is a tributary of the Danube River, which it joins at the extreme southern tip of the country. The Ialpug, Cogalnic, and other small southern rivers drain largely into the Danubian estuary in nearby Ukraine.
Underground water, extensively used for the republic's water supply, includes about 2,200 natural springs. The terrain favours construction of reservoirs.
The soils of Moldova are varied and highly fertile, with rich, black soils covering three-quarters of the republic. The best-developed chernozem, fostering the growth of grain, tobacco, and sugar beets, is found in the north, in the low-lying parts of the central and Dniester uplands, as well as in the left-bank regions. Soil quality diminishes southward, but grapes and sunflowers still can be grown. Brown and grey forest soils characterise the uplands: two-fifths are covered by forests, the rest by orchards, vineyards, and fields of grain. Alluvial soils characterise the floodplains, while the lower reaches of the Prut and southern river valleys have saline and marshland soils.
Moldova's climate, warm and moderately continental, is characterised by a lengthy frost-free period, a comparatively mild winter, considerable temperature fluctuations, and, in the south, long dry periods.
The average annual temperature reaches 46° F (8° C) in the north and 50° F (10° C) in the south, but the July averages rise to 67° and 73° F (19°and 23° C), respectively, and the mercury drops as low as 23° and 27° F (-5° and -3° C) in January. Absolute temperatures recorded range from a record low of -33° F (-36° C) to a high of 106° F (41° C).
Moldova receives highly variable amounts of precipitation-average figures are 18 to 22 inches (450 to 550 millimetres) annually, with totals a little lower in the south-but these figures conceal variations that may double the quantity in some years and result in prolonged dry spells in others. Most precipitation occurs as rain in the warmer months, and heavy summer showers, coupled with the irregular terrain, cause erosion problems and river silting. Winter snow cover is thin.
Winds tend to come from either the northwest or the southeast.
Plant and animal life
Northern and central Moldova is a forest zone, while a steppe belt crosses the south. There are more than 1,500 species of plants in the republic, with scenic expanses of forests, covering about 1,150 square miles, of particular importance, especially in the central Codri Hills region. The commonest trees are hornbeam and oak, followed by a rich variety including linden, maple, wild pear, and wild cherry. Beech forests are found at the sources of the Ikel and Bac rivers. Large-scale reforestation projects have been carried out in the republic.
Moldova's steppes originally were grass-covered, but most of them are now cultivated. Lush meadows and reed growths occur in the floodplains of the Dniester and portions of the Prut, while salt-marsh grasslands flourish in the saline valleys of the Cogalnic, Ialpug, Botna, and lower Prut.
The animal life of Moldova is rich, despite the republic's small sise. Mammals include wild boar, roe deer, hare, wolves, foxes, badgers, wildcats, ermines, and polecats. Siberian stags, fallow deer, spotted deer, and muskrat have been successively introduced and are firmly established. Roe deer, hare, foxes, and muskrat are of commercial importance.
There are many species of birds, both resident and migratory. The marshy lower reaches of Moldova's rivers provide sanctuary for wild geese, migratory ducks, and herons, while white-tailed sea eagles are found in the floodplain forests. The wood lark, jay, song thrush, blackbird, hawk, and long-eared owl frequent the republic's forests. Plentiful fish supplies include carp (raised in artificial reservoirs), perch, bream, ruff, and pike.
Economic policies imposed during the Soviet era brought significant changes to both the countryside and cities. The pace of urbanisation was dramatic, in part because Moldova was the least urban of all the Soviet republics.
Industrialisation spurred the growth of large and small cities in every part of the republic, but nowhere more so than in the capital, Chisinau, the economic, administrative, and cultural centre of the republic; Chisinau now accounts for more than one-third of the total urban population.
The collectivisation of agriculture during the Soviet period concentrated population in large villages, two-thirds of which have between 1,000 and 5,000 inhabitants. As villages assumed new economic and administrative functions, they became more modern in level of comfort and in the public services they could provide.