RUSSIAN TUNDRA, TAIGA, STEPPE AND MUD

GEOGRAPHICAL REGIONS OF RUSSIA

Geographers traditionally divide the vast territory of Russia into five natural zones: the tundra zone; the taiga, or forest, zone; the steppe, or plains, zone; the arid zone; and the mountain zone. About 10 percent of Russia is tundra, or treeless, marshy plain. The tundra is Russia's northernmost zone, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, then running south along the Pacific coast to the northern Kamchatka Peninsula. The zone is known for its herds of wild reindeer, for so-called white nights (dusk at midnight, dawn shortly thereafter) in summer, and for days of total darkness in winter. The long, harsh winters and lack of sunshine allow only mosses, lichens, and dwarf willows and shrubs to sprout low above the barren permafrost. Although several powerful Siberian rivers traverse this zone as they flow northward to the Arctic Ocean, partial and intermittent thawing hamper drainage of the numerous lakes, ponds, and swamps of the tundra. Frost weathering is the most important physical process here, gradually shaping a landscape that was severely modified by glaciation in the last ice age. Less than 1 percent of Russia's population lives in this zone. The fishing and port industries of the northwestern Kola Peninsula and the huge oil and gas fields of northwestern Siberia are the largest employers in the tundra. With a population of 180,000, the industrial frontier city of Noril'sk is second in population to Murmansk among Russia's settlements above the Arctic Circle. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The taiga, which is the world's largest forest region, contains mostly coniferous spruce, fir, cedar, and larch. This is the largest natural zone of the Russian Federation, an area about the size of the United States. In the northeastern portion of this belt, long and severe winters frequently bring the world's coldest temperatures for inhabited areas. The taiga zone extends in a broad band across the middle latitudes, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Verkhoyansk Range in northeastern Siberia and as far south as the southern shores of Lake Baikal. Isolated sections of taiga also exist along mountain ranges such as the southern part of the Urals and in the Amur River valley bordering China in the Far East. About 33 percent of Russia's population lives in this zone, which, together with a band of mixed forest to its south, includes most of the European part of Russia and the ancestral lands of the earliest Slavic settlers.*

The steppe has long been depicted as the typical Russian landscape. It is a broad band of treeless, grassy plains, interrupted by mountain ranges, extending from Hungary across Ukraine, southern Russia, and Kazakstan before ending in Manchuria. Most of the Soviet Union's steppe zone was located in the Ukrainian and Kazak republics; the much smaller Russian steppe is located mainly between those nations, extending southward between the Black and Caspian seas before blending into the increasingly desiccated territory of the Republic of Kalmykia. In a country of extremes, the steppe zone provides the most favorable conditions for human settlement and agriculture because of its moderate temperatures and normally adequate levels of sunshine and moisture. Even here, however, agricultural yields are sometimes adversely affected by unpredictable levels of precipitation and occasional catastrophic droughts.*

Ice Age Geology

Much of the landscape of Europe has been shaped in various ways by glaciation during the Ice Ages. The jagged appearance of the Alps and other European mountains was created by ice age glaciers that swept over Europe in the last few million years. The sharp snow-capped peaks, cirques, gouged lakes and gentle U-shaped curved valleys were all created by glaciers.

Ice Age glaciers covered all of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ireland, and Switzerland and most of the British isles, northern Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Austria and western Russia.

Much of Scandinavia, Northern Europe, northwest Russia and Britain were covered by continental glaciers in the last Ice Ages. The scouring action of these glaciers created hundreds of thousands of lakes and left behind a flat or undulating landscape and rough, stony soil. Drumlins are low hills that have been created by moraine (glacial debris) left behind as the glaciers retreated.

Glaciers create lakes three main ways: 1) by carving out depressions that fill with water; 2) by leaving behind debris on a flat landscape that blocks rivers or traps water in other ways; and 3) by retreating and leaving behind debris that blocks a valley like dam, creating a lake behind it. The latter are sometimes called finger lakes.

Swamps, Wetlands and Mud

Large areas of Russia are covered by bog and swamp. Many of these places are covered by snow more than half the year, When the now melt the area floods. The northward flow of Russia’s great rivers means that source areas thaw before the areas downstream, creating vast swamps such as the 48,000-square-kilometer Vasyugane Swamp in the center of the West Siberian Plain. The same is true of other river systems, including the Pechora and the North Dvina in Europe and the Kolyma and the Indigirka in Siberia. Approximately 10 percent of Russian territory is classified as swampland.

Russia contains more wetlands than any other country. There are between one and two million lakes and ponds and the forest are often a mix of pine groves, bogs and swamps. An area of bogs and swamps north of Tomsk and Lake Baikal has been described as the largest wetland on earth. It embraces forests and lakes and produces as much oxygen as the Amazon. It also holds a lot of oil. When walking through the bogs it is a good idea to wear rubber boots and avoid patches where you can sink up to your waist.

Russia is also famous for its mud, which occurs after the springtime thaw. Describing springtime Russian mud, Fred Hiatt wrote in the Washington Post: "it was everywhere, and it was not the benign glob of childhood pies. This mud was thick, squelching, voracious. And there was nothing but mud—no asphalt road or safer ways round. Jeeps set out across it and pitched and rolled and swivelled like sailboats on a dangerous sea. Eventually, like all vehicles, they succumbed. Then you stepped down, lifted your foot, and found that boot had been left behind...It is easier to walk with flippers here.”

The Germans suffered terribly in the cold in World War II, but what really did them in militarily was the rasputitsa, a twice yearly "liquefaction of the steppe" that occurs throughout the Soviet Union during the spring snowbelt and the autumns rains, bringing everything to a halt. The rasputitsa in the spring of 1941 was particularly long, delaying the German invasion a couple of critical weeks, and the one in the following autumn postponed the advance on Moscow because Nazi tanks literally sank into a quagmire and couldn't be moved. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Steppe

The famous steppe of Central Asia is 3000-mile-long, flat or gently rolling grassland, averaging 500 miles in width. It is mostly treeless except for areas along riverbanks. It's name is derived from stepi, "meaning plain. The Central Asian steppe stretches from Mongolia and the Great Wall of China in the east to Hungary and the Danube River in the west. It is bounded by the taiga forest of Russia to the north and by desert and mountains to the south. It is located at about same latitude as the American plains and embraces a dozen countries, including Russia, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrzgzstan and several other former Soviet Republics.

The steppe has long been depicted as the typical Russian landscape. It is a broad band of treeless, grassy plains, interrupted by mountain ranges, extending from Hungary across Ukraine, southern Russia, and Kazakstan before ending in Manchuria. Most of the Soviet Union's steppe zone was located in the Ukrainian and Kazak republics; the much smaller Russian steppe is located mainly between those nations, extending southward between the Black and Caspian seas before blending into the increasingly desiccated territory of the Republic of Kalmykia. In a country of extremes, the steppe zone provides the most favorable conditions for human settlement and agriculture because of its moderate temperatures and normally adequate levels of sunshine and moisture. Even here, however, agricultural yields are sometimes adversely affected by unpredictable levels of precipitation and occasional catastrophic droughts.*

Describing the steppes, Polish Nobel laureate Henry Sienkiewicz wrote in With Fire and Sword, "The steppes are wholly desolate and unpeopled yet filled living menace. Silent and still yet seething with hidden violence, peaceful in their immensity yet infinitely dangerous, these boundless spaces were a masterless, untamed country created foe ruthless men who acknowledge no one as their overlord."

The poor yellow steppe soil is much less fertile than rich black earth found in southern Russia and Ukraine. When the topsoil is stripped of vegetation it becomes dusty and is easily blown away in the wind.

Steppe Plants and Grasses

Steppes are covered mostly by sparse grass or grasses and shrubs such as saxual. Trees are often stunted. Large trunks, branches and leaves require a lot of water to maintain. When the steppes meet the foot foothills, you can find wild poppies, even wild opium poppies.

The grass family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, embracing some 10,000 different species worldwide. Contrary to what you might think, grasses are fairly complex plants. What you see are only their leaves.

Grass flowers are often not recognizable as such. Because grasses rely on the breeze to distribute pollen (there is a usually lots of wind on the steppe) and they don't need colorful flowers to attract pollinators such as birds and bees. Grass flowers have scales instead of pedals and grow in clusters on special tall stems that lift them high enough to be carried by the wind.

Grasses need lots of sunlight. They do not grow well in forests or other shady areas. Tall feather grass grows well in the well-watered parts of the steppe. Shorter grass grows better in the dry steppe where there is less rainfall. Chiy, a grass with cane-like reeds, is used by nomads to make decorative screens in the yurts

Grasses can tolerate lack of rain, intense sunlight, strong winds, shredding from lawnmowers, the cleats of Athletes and the hooves of grazing animals. They can survive fires: only their leaves burn; the root stocks are rarely damaged.

The ability of grass to endure such harsh conditions lies in the structures of its leaves, The leaves of other plants spring from buds and have a developed a network of veins that carry sap and expand into the leaf. If a leaf is damaged a plant can seal its veins with sap but do little else. Grass leaves on the other hand don't have a network of veins, rather they have unbranched veins that grow straight, and can tolerate being cut, broken or damaged, and keep growing.

Taiga and Forests

The taiga is the extensive, sub-Arctic evergreen forest of Russia. The largest of the five primary natural zones in Russia, it lies south of the tundra. The taiga contains mostly coniferous spruce, fir, cedar, and larch. This is the largest natural zone of the Russian Federation, an area about the size of the United States. In the northeastern portion of this belt, long and severe winters frequently bring the world's coldest temperatures for inhabited areas. The taiga zone extends in a broad band across the middle latitudes, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Verkhoyansk Range in northeastern Siberia and as far south as the southern shores of Lake Baikal. Isolated sections of taiga also exist along mountain ranges such as the southern part of the Urals and in the Amur River valley bordering China in the Far East. About 33 percent of Russia's population lives in this zone, which, together with a band of mixed forest to its south, includes most of the European part of Russia and the ancestral lands of the earliest Slavic settlers. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The forested area extending across Russia and Scandinavia—which is mostly comprised of the Russian taiga—is regarded as the world's largest single forest. The Russian taiga accounts for 57 percent of world's conifer forest and 23 percent of all the world's woodlands. The Siberian taiga is larger than Amazonia. It covers 2.3 million square miles and holds a forth of the world's timber reserves and stores 40 million tons of carbon dioxide.

The taiga forests are made up of mostly normal size and stunted pines, birch, hemlock, spruce, alder and Siberian larch. About 25 percent of Russia's original forest are intact. These are the largest remaining stands of timber in the world. They provide good shelter for black bears, musk deer, squirrels, lemmings, voles, and mice. There are also moose, reindeer, sable, weasels, otter, beaver, lynx, wolves, swans, eagles and other animals.

In European Russia, where the summers are longer and rain is more abundant you can finder more broad-leafed deciduous trees. Most of this land however has been plowed up for agriculture.

Boreal Forests

The taiga of Russia is mostly boreal forest. The boreal forest is a term used to describe the great northern forest that circles the northern part of the globe. It covers one third of the earth's wooded land. Half the boreal forest is in Russia. A third is in Canada. The remainder is in Scandinavia and Alaska. “Boreal” mean “northern.” [Source: Fen Montaigne, National Geographic, June 2002]

The boreal forest is mostly made up of normal size and stunted pines, birch, hemlock, fir, spruce, aspen and Siberian larch. It begins where the temperate forests of oak and maple leave off and continues north past the Arctic Circle to where stunted pine and larch give way to tundra. The name of the forest is derived from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind.

There is often no forest understory like there is in a tropical rain forest, which is dominated by a sun-blocking canopy. The boreal forest floor is carpeted by ferns, lichens, moss and piles of pine cones and needles, with fallen branches and logs here and there. In some places the forest is an endless patchwork of pine groves, peat bogs, ponds and lakes.

There are different ecosystems: wet and dry, hardwood and evergreen. The wetland areas ate particularly important as breeding grounds for birds.

Environment of Boreal Forests

The shade provided by boreal forest trees is ideal for grasses, mosses, lichens, berries and mushrooms. These in turn provide food for animals like lemmings, voles, squirrels and mice. There are also moose, reindeer, sable, weasels, bear, otter, beaver, lynx, wolves, swans, eagles and other birds. In some places you can even find orchids. Even so there is much less biodiversity in a boreal forest than in the rain forest. There are 3,270 plant species in Canada compared to 29,375 in Indonesia.

The plants, animals and people found in the boreal forest are able to withstand extreme cold and constant change. The winters are long and cold. The summers are short and cool. The growing season is very brief. The low-horizon light during the summer casts everything in a unworldly glow.

The boreal forests are home to billions of birds, including ducks, geese and songbirds. Some winter in the tropical areas. Many birds we are familiar with in the mid latitudes—warblers, sparrows, ducks and shorebirds—breed and spend their summers in the boreal forest.

Boreal forests are just as important as rain forests in terms of absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. The thin soils found in boreal forest are called podsol.

Tundra

Tundra is the treeless plain within the Arctic Circle that has low-growing vegetation and permanently frozen subsoil (permafrost). It is the northernmost of the five primary natural zones of Russia. Much of the Arctic is too cold for trees to grow. Much of the landscape is covered by a treeless, marshy plain, with a carpet of plants, called tundra, that spreads for as far as the eye can see in many places and is undisturbed except for streaks of snow, pools of water and rock piles. Most tundra areas lies within the Arctic Circle.

About 10 percent of Russia is tundra. The tundra is Russia's northernmost zone, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, then running south along the Pacific coast to the northern Kamchatka Peninsula. The zone is known for its herds of wild reindeer, for so-called white nights (dusk at midnight, dawn shortly thereafter) in summer, and for days of total darkness in winter. The long, harsh winters and lack of sunshine allow only mosses, lichens, and dwarf willows and shrubs to sprout low above the barren permafrost. Although several powerful Siberian rivers traverse this zone as they flow northward to the Arctic Ocean, partial and intermittent thawing hamper drainage of the numerous lakes, ponds, and swamps of the tundra. Frost weathering is the most important physical process here, gradually shaping a landscape that was severely modified by glaciation in the last ice age. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Tundra regions sometimes receive less rain than a desert, but because there is hardly any evaporation and seepage is inhibited by the permafrost the land is spongy and soggy. And even though the growing season is very short plants can grow for 24 hours a day under the midnight sun.

Sedges, grasses, scrub willows, birch, juniper, cloudberries, cranberries, blueberries, lichens, mosses and fungi are the plants best adapted for growing in the tundra. These provide enough food to support large numbers of hares, mice, squirrels, voles, waterfowl, migratory birds—and yes, insects, including lots and lots of mosquitos. The main large animals living in the tundra are reindeer, musk oxen and bears. Trees that grow in the tundra are stunted dwarfs. The permafrost doesn’t allow trees to send down deep roots.

Less than 1 percent of Russia's population lives in the tundra zone. The fishing and port industries of the northwestern Kola Peninsula and the huge oil and gas fields of northwestern Siberia are the largest employers in the tundra. With a population of 180,000, the industrial frontier city of Noril'sk is second in population to Murmansk among Russia's settlements above the Arctic Circle. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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