CLIMATE OF RUSSIA
The climate of Russia’s vast territory ranges from steppes in the south through humid continental in much of European Russia to subarctic in Siberia to tundra climate in the polar north. Winters vary from cool along Black Sea coast to frigid in Siberia; summers vary from warm in the steppes to cool along Arctic coast. [Source: [Source: CIA World Factbook]
European Russia receives some maritime climatic influence from the Baltic and Black seas and the Atlantic Ocean; from the Urals to the Far East, the climate is fully continental. The Pacific Ocean provides the southern Far East with warm, humid monsoon conditions. Winter weather varies from short-term and cold along the Black Sea to long-term and frigid in northern Siberia. Summer conditions range from warm on the steppes to cool along the Arctic coast. Much of Russia is covered by snow for six months of the year, and the weather often is harsh and unpredictable. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006]
Russia has a largely continental climate because of its sheer size and compact configuration. Most of its land is more than 400 kilometers from the sea, and the center is 3,840 kilometers from the sea. In addition, Russia's mountain ranges, predominantly to the south and the east, block moderating temperatures from the Indian and Pacific oceans, but European Russia and northern Siberia lack such topographic protection from the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Because only small parts of Russia are south of 50 degrees north latitude and more than half of the country is north of 60 degrees north latitude, extensive regions experience six months of snow cover over subsoil that is permanently frozen to depths as far as several hundred meters. Most of Russia has only two seasons, summer and winter, with very short intervals of moderation between them. Transportation routes, including entire railroad lines, are redirected in winter to traverse rock-solid waterways and lakes. Some areas constitute important exceptions to this description, however: the moderate maritime climate of Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic Sea is similar to that of the American Northwest; the Russian Far East, under the influence of the Pacific Ocean, has a monsoonal climate that reverses the direction of wind in summer and winter, sharply differentiating temperatures; and a narrow, subtropical band of territory provides Russia's most popular summer resort area on the Black Sea. *
Barometers in Siberia used to be made from willow sticks that registered the pressure by bending in accordance to how much water was in the air. Describing the seasons of Russia, the English poet Giles Fletcher, who worked as special envoy to Russia, wrote in 1589, "The whole country differeth very much from itself, by reason of the year: so that man would marvel to see the great alternation and difference betwixt the Winter and the Summer in Russia."
Temperatures in Russia
The average yearly temperature of nearly all of European Russia is below freezing, and the average for most of Siberia is freezing or below. In European Russia, the average annual temperature is 0 degrees C; Moscow’s average is 4 degrees C. In Moscow the average midsummer high temperature is 23º, and the average midwinter high temperature is –9º C. The yearly average in southern Siberia is 0 degrees C and in north-central Siberia –9 degrees C. The Pacific port of Vladivostok averages 5 degrees C. The precipitation in most areas is low to moderate. Mountains in the northwest receive as much as 2,000 millimeters annually, and points on the Pacific Coast receive as much as 1,000 millimeters. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006]
In winter an intense high-pressure system causes winds to blow from the south and the southwest in all but the Pacific region of the Russian landmass; in summer a low-pressure system brings winds from the north and the northwest to most of the landmass. That meteorological combination reduces the wintertime temperature difference between north and south. Thus, average January temperatures are -8 degrees C in St. Petersburg, -27 degrees C in the West Siberian Plain, and -43 degrees C at Yakutsk (in east-central Siberia, at approximately the same latitude as St. Petersburg), while the winter average on the Mongolian border, whose latitude is some 10 degrees farther south, is barely warmer. Summer temperatures are more affected by latitude, however; the Arctic islands average 4 degrees C, and the southernmost regions average 20 degrees C. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Of the 100 coldest cities in the northern hemisphere 85 are in Russia, 10 are in Canada and 5 at in the United States. Russia's potential for temperature extremes is typified by the national record low of -94 degrees C, recorded at Verkhoyansk in north-central Siberia and the record high of 38 degrees C, recorded at several southern stations. *
Precipitation in Russia
Because Russia has little exposure to ocean influences, most of the country receives low to moderate amounts of precipitation. Highest precipitation falls in the northwest, with amounts decreasing from northwest to southeast across European Russia. The wettest areas are the small, lush subtropical region adjacent to the Caucasus and along the Pacific coast. Along the Baltic coast, average annual precipitation is 600 millimeters, and in Moscow it is 525 millimeters. An average of only twenty millimeters falls along the Russian-Kazak border, and as little as fifteen millimeters may fall along Siberia's Arctic coastline. Average annual days of snow cover, a critical factor for agriculture, depends on both latitude and altitude. Cover varies from forty to 200 days in European Russia, and from 120 to 250 days in Siberia. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
To keep rain from falling on Moscow's 850th anniversary and other events in 1997, Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov ordered hundreds of thousands of dollars to be spent for planes to seed clouds with dry ice, liquid nitrogen and various chemicals so that clouds dump their loads before the arrived in Moscow. The same mayor set up a city weather service after the federal meteorological agency failed to forecast a particularly strong thunderstorm and proposed fining weathermen for inaccuracy after they failed to accurately predict the severity of a strong blizzard. “We are paying you and would like to receive a quality product. Instead of that you are giving us #*@*!” Luzhkov said.
Snows weighs about 100 kilograms per cubic meter when it falls, but it compacts over time and can increase in weight to more than 300 kilograms per cubic meter.
Spring in Russia
Especially in the Arctic the spring is brief and intense. The landscape changes from white and the brown and green. March is marked by slush, mud and ice and an occasional blizzard. Some Russians say it is the worst time of the year. Others say its no so bad as there is as much daylight and night and hints appear that spring is around the corner. It is not uncommon for major blizzard to occur in Moscow in April or even May.
The blooming of small white flowers called Snowdrops is usually an indication that spring is near. Once an early spring in Moscow caused the ground to thaw in March. Underground caverns of hot water caused by leaky pipes caved in. Several pedestrians were swallowed by the holes and scalded to death.
In 1598, Fletcher wrote: "This fresh and speedy growth of the Spring there, seemeth to proceed from the benefit of the Snow: which all the Winter time being spread over the whole country, as a white robe, and keeping it warm from vigor of the Frost. In the Spring time when the sun waxeth and snow warms and dissolveth it into water, it doeth so thoroughly drench and soak the ground, that is somewhat of a sleight and sandie mold, and then shineth hotly upon it again that it draweth the herbs and plants forth in the great plenty and variety, in a very short time."
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]
Summer in Russia
In the northern reaches of Russia the sun never sets between May 12 and August 1. During the long summer days the sun goes in a circle completely around the horizon. During this “white night” period the sun doesn't set in the Moscow area until 11:30 and the sky never gets completely dark. The horizon-hugging Arctic sun produces wonderful light. The long periods of sunlight allows plants grow very quickly.
In 1589, Fletcher wrote: " In the Summer time you shall see such a new hew and face of a country, the woods...so fresh and so sweet, the pastures and meadows so green and well grown..,such variety of flowers, such noise of birds (specially nightingales, that seem to be more loud and of a more variable note than in other countries), that a man shall not lightly travel in a more pleasant country."
During the spring and summer Russians flock to the outdoors. City streets and parks are crowded. After the long winter urban women and men often head to city parks and strip to bathing suit to soak in the sunshine. Bikinis are a very common sight during the summertime along the rivers of Siberia, where people swim in incredibly cold water. In Siberia people go off to the wilderness to fishm hunt and gather berries and mushrooms. One resident of Verkhoyansk told the New York Times, "Summer always comes as a shock." People work almost round the clock hunting and unloading supplies from boats.”
There are sometimes intense hot spells. A Moscow heat wave in May and June 1995, which produced weather local residents called "hotter than Havana," lead to a number of deaths. With few air conditioners people sought relief in other ways. Eight-two people died from drowning between May 12 and June 8. Health officials issues a warning for 10 swimming areas when a cholera-causing bacteria was discovered.
Spring and Summer and Russian Moods
When spring finally arrived in April or May Russians become downright euphoric. In 1829 Pushkin wrote: "Frost and sun, a wonderful day! And you're still asleep, my sweet friend. It is time, beauty. Wake up!"
A psychiatrist who works at a mental hospital in a town above the Arctic Circle said, "Up here in the north, people do as nature does-sleep in the winter and awaken, very suddenly in spring, like the flowers. They awaken hungry for warmth, for the sun, for work, for living. Our year begins in the spring, when the dull time is over.”
The long days in the summer seem to put everyone in a good mood. When "the days get longer," a former government official told Associated Press, the weather changes, the stone of the city looks less severe, the color of the water changes, and the people change, too—they shed their shells, they laugh, feel optimistic again. In winter we are often melancholy, but in summer we have been known to giggle.”
Many people start getting depressed again in August. One Russian woman told the Washington Post, "I start to think, oh, these are the last days of good weather and the whole winter is now in front of us. And how unbearable that seems."
In the spring and summer, mosquitoes rise from the tundra and the forest rise like clouds. They take advantage of every bit of standing water to lay their eggs and breed by the billions in the stagnate water created by the melting soil, snow and ice above the permafrost. After driving several hundred kilometers in tundra and taiga areas license plates become so covered with smashed mosquitos it is difficult to read the numbers.
Mosquitos spend the entire winter in a special pupae. The mosquitos are so thick because they hatch all at once from eggs that have hibernated through the winter. More than 300 bites a minute to an exposed forearm have been recorded. Scientists in the Canadian Arctic have recorded attack rates of 9000 bites a minute, enough to cause a person to lose half his blood supply in two hours and cause death.
In some places mosquitoes are reportedly so thick that reindeer suffocate to death because their nostrils get clogged with them. Russians drive off mosquitoes with smoke from a smoldering log in a bucket. Insect repellant is sometimes in short supply in some remote areas because people drink it for the alcohol it contains. Some local people like the mosquitoes because they keep the tourist away.
Prisoners in Siberia in the gulag ere found clouds of mosquitos and blood-sucking midges in the summer particularly hard to endure. One survivor at a Siberia camp recalled” “the mosquitos crawled to our sleeves, under our trousers. One’s face would blow up from the bites. At the work site, we were brought lunch and it happened that as you as you were eating your soup, the mosquitos would fill up the bowl like buckwheat porridge. They filled up your eyes, your nose and throat, and taste of them was sweet, like blood. “
Freaky Weather in Russia
Russia gets its share of freaky weather. Alec Luhn wrote in The Guardian, In mid July 2014, “a heatwave in the Novosibirsk region ended suddenly when the temperature dropped and the area was pelted with egg-sized hailstones, to the horror of beach-goers in one viral video. The same day, a rainstorm turned into a blizzard and left up to 10cm of snow in the Chelyabinsk region owing to what experts said was an Arctic cyclone. Also in July, authorities declared a state of emergency after three months' worth of rain fell in 36 hours in Magadan, cutting off some residents while others wakeboarded behind cars and trucks. [Source: Alec Luhn, The Guardian, August 1, 2014 <>]
During the period of the freaky weather there were a number of bear attacks. At 2am “at a meteorological station in the forests of Sakha Republic. A bear broke down the door of a residential trailer and bit the arm of the woman inside, only to be scared away by her loud screaming. Three days earlier another bear ambushed a boy on Iturup island as he was walking home from his grandmother's house. The bear had dragged the 14-year-old to the shore by the time police arrived and shot it dead. The boy had 170 stitches and remains in critical condition. A bear killed three construction workers on Sakhalin island and left two in critical condition in an attack that was partially filmed on one of the men's mobile phones. <>
“According to Alexey Kokorin, head of the climate and energy programme at WWF Russia, these phenomena are part of a trend he attributed to global climate change, which on top of natural variations has caused the frequency of extreme weather events to more than double in all parts of Russia over the past two decades. "In Russia, all these things have happened, snow in southern Urals and heatwaves in Siberia, but now they're happening more often," he said.” <>
Orange, Smelly Snow in Siberia Caused by a Kazakhstan Storm?
In February 2007, people in the small southern Siberian village of Pudinskoye woke up to the sight of orange snow falling from the sky. Luke Harding wrote in The Guardian, “ In fact, three regions of southern Siberia — a vast area of industrial towns, pine trees and the odd bear — reported the same mysterious phenomenon. Not only was the snow not white, it also smelt bad. Most of the snow was orange. But some of it was red and yellow as well, officials confirmed, after scrambling to the affected areas to dig up samples. And it was also oily, they discovered. [Source: Luke Harding, The Guardian, February 2, 2007 ^|^]
“Russian officials in the Omsk region, 1,400 miles from Moscow, swiftly warned local residents not to touch the snow or feed it to their animals. "At the present moment we cannot give explanations for the snow, which is oily to the touch and has a pronounced rotten smell. We are waiting for the results of a thorough test on samples," Omsk's environmental prosecutor, Anton German, said this morning. ^|^
“Russian scientists trying to solve the mystery faced a tricky problem. The region is home to so many polluting industries it was hard to identify which one might have been responsible. Could it have been the nuclear plant in nearby Mayak? Or the metallurgy and chemicals factory in Ust-Kamenogorsk? The region is next to north Kazakhstan, a vast area of steppe used by the Soviet Union to conduct its nuclear tests. Or might the rogue snow have been caused by fuel from the space rockets launched in Kazakhstan? ^|^
“Environmental campaigners said that Russia had suffered decades of pollution — nuclear, industrial, and radioactive. "I have to admit yellow snow is pretty unusual," said Vladimir Sliviak, the chairman of the Russian environmental group Ecodefence. "I can think of only two other cases in the last decade. "This area of Siberia is beautiful. It's classic Russian forest. There is a lot of snow. There are a few bears and plenty of wolves as well. It's OK in terms of biodiversity." ^|^
“Russia's emergency situations ministry offered an explanation. Officials said a storm in neighbouring Kazakhstan had swept up clay and dust, dumping it on parts of the Tomsk and Omsk regions. Not everyone was convinced. Russia's environmental watchdog said the snow contained four times higher than normal quantities of iron as well as acids and nitrates. "I don't believe this came from a storm. If we discover that it is an industrial entity that produced this pollution criminal charges will be opened," said Oleg Mitvol, the deputy head of Russia's environmental watchdog.” ^|^
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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016