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Soils, plants and animal life of Russia

The interconnectivity between climate, soil composition, vegetation types, and wildlife is a defining characteristic of the Russian environment, where these elements collectively establish a sequence of expansive latitudinal ecological zones. These zones extend from the nation’s western frontier to the Lena River, traversing the vast plains and plateaus. In contrast, the environmental landscape within the southern and eastern mountainous regions of Russia is dictated primarily by altitude rather than latitude, resulting in a more intricate array of ecological variations over comparatively smaller geographical spans.

Russia is home to six principal ecological zones, some of which are further divided into subzones. These include the Arctic desert, tundra, taiga, mixed and deciduous forests, wooded steppe, and steppe regions. Remarkably, forests of diverse species constitute in excess of 40% of Russia’s total land coverage.

One notable species, the endangered Siberian tiger, resides within the forested areas of the Primorye and Khabarovsk territories in the far eastern part of the country. The preservation of this majestic creature has garnered significant conservation attention both domestically and internationally, highlighting the importance of Russia’s commitment to biodiversity and environmental stewardship.

Arctic desert

The Arctic desert region, encompassing the Franz Josef Land islands, significant portions of the Novaya Zemlya and Severnaya Zemlya archipelagos, as well as the New Siberian Islands, is characterized by its stark and barren landscape, which supports minimal to no vegetation. A substantial expanse of this territory is perpetually blanketed by ice.

Tundra

Approximately 10% of Russia’s landmass consists of tundra, characterized by its flat and treeless landscape. This biome extends along a narrow strip on the northernmost edge of the European Plain and expands to roughly 500 kilometers in width across Siberia. The soil found within the tundra is notably infertile. Due to the region’s low temperatures, there is an excess of moisture, leading to poor drainage. The sparse and patchy vegetation contributes minimal organic content to the soil, which decomposes at a slow rate, further contributing to the soil’s high acidity.

For a significant portion of the year, the tundra soil remains in a frozen state. When the surface layer thaws during the summer months, the underlying permafrost impedes proper drainage. The uppermost layer of the soil typically consists of undeveloped humus, followed by a layer of gley soil, which is situated above the permafrost.

The vegetation of the tundra varies from the north to the south and can be categorized into three distinct zones: the Arctic tundra, which is marked by vast expanses of bare ground with prevalent mosses and lichens; the shrubby tundra, home to a mix of mosses, lichens, herbaceous plants, dwarf Arctic birch, and shrub willow; and the wooded tundra, which boasts larger areas of stunted birch, larch, and spruce trees. Additionally, there are extensive areas of sphagnum bog within the region.

The tundra supports a variety of wildlife, including reindeer, which are an integral part of the indigenous peoples’ herding practices. Other notable species in the tundra include Arctic foxes, musk oxen, beavers, lemmings, snowy owls, and ptarmigan, each adapted to the harsh conditions of this unique ecosystem.

Taiga

Beneath the tundra, one encounters the expansive taiga, or boreal forest, which is the most extensive of the environmental regions. This zone encompasses the plains of Russia and Western Siberia, situated north of the 56°–58° N latitude, and extends across the majority of the territory to the east of the Yenisey River. The taiga is geographically divided into western and eastern sections, with the western taiga being characterized by a milder climate and differentiated from the harsher conditions found in the eastern taiga past the Yenisey.

In the more humid areas of the western taiga, spruce and fir forests are prevalent, while drier soils support a mix of shrubs, grasses, and pine. Although these species are also found in the eastern taiga, the larch tree predominates in that region. Agricultural development has only marginally penetrated the taiga, primarily within its European sections, leaving it as the world’s most significant source of timber. Nonetheless, the coniferous forest is not unbroken; it is interspersed with substantial stands of birch, alder, and willow, and in areas with poor drainage, extensive swamps and peat bogs are common. The taiga is a habitat rich in fur-bearing animals such as sables, squirrels, martens, foxes, and ermines, and it also supports populations of elk, bears, muskrats, and wolves.

The predominant soil found throughout the taiga is known as podzol, which forms as a result of the heavy leaching that occurs in this moisture-abundant region. The forest’s vegetative cover contributes a layer of acidic raw humus that decomposes slowly, generating humic acids. These acids, carried by percolating groundwater, leach iron and calcium compounds from the soil’s upper layers, leaving them pale. The leached materials then accumulate at lower depths, often creating an iron-rich hardpan that hinders the drainage of the soil’s upper horizons, leading to the development of gley podzols. To facilitate successful agricultural practices in these soils, applications of lime and fertilizer are necessary.

Mixed and deciduous forest

As one progresses towards lower latitudes where the climate is warmer, there is a notable increase in the prevalence of deciduous tree species, which ultimately become the predominant flora. The expansive belt of mixed and deciduous forests assumes a triangular shape, reaching its maximum breadth along the western frontier of Russia and tapering as it approaches the Ural Mountains. The primary arboreal species in this region are oak and spruce, complemented by a diverse array of trees including ash, aspen, birch, elm, hornbeam, maple, and pine.

To the east of the Urals, extending to the Altai Mountains, a slender corridor of birch and aspen woodlands demarcates the boundary between the taiga and the wooded steppe. A significant portion of this mixed and deciduous forest zone has been converted to agricultural land, particularly within the European sector. Consequently, the abundance of wildlife has diminished, though species such as roe deer, wolves, foxes, and squirrels remain prevalent.

The soil composition within this region also exhibits a gradient from north to south. With a reduction in excess moisture, the process of leaching is less pronounced, leading to a transition from true podzolic soils to those characterized as gray and brown forest soils. These latter soil types are less acidic, richer in organic matter, and possess higher inherent fertility. Additionally, a second zone of mixed forest is found within the Amur-Ussuri-Zeya lowland.

Wooded steppe and steppe

The progression towards the south is marked by the presence of the wooded steppe, which serves as an intermediary between the forested regions and the true steppe. This zone is characterized by a mix of forested areas, originally dominated by oak among other species in Europe (which have been extensively cleared to accommodate agricultural activities) and by birch and aspen in the West Siberian Plain. These wooded areas are interspersed with expanses of open grassland that widen as one moves further south. The wooded steppe transitions into the genuine steppe, a swath approximately 200 miles (320 kilometers) wide that stretches from the southern part of Ukraine, across northern Kazakhstan, and reaches the Altai region. Within Russia, the Eurasian Steppe is less extensive, primarily found in the North Caucasus and the lower Volga areas, with additional isolated patches of wooded steppe and steppe in the southern Siberian mountain basins.

The steppe’s indigenous vegetation primarily consists of turf grasses, including species such as bunchgrass, fescue, bluegrass, and agropyron. It also supports perennial grasses, mosses, and lichens, with drought-tolerant varieties prevalent in the southern regions. Here, the vegetation sequence extends into Kazakhstan, transitioning from dry steppe to semi-desert and ultimately to the vast deserts of Central Asia. Woodlands are not entirely absent, occurring in more moist regions such as river valleys and low-lying areas. However, much of the original steppe vegetation, especially in the western regions, has been supplanted by crops, particularly grains.

The open landscapes of the steppe, devoid of natural shelters, have shaped the wildlife that thrives there. The fauna includes typical rodents such as marmots and various species of mice that are adapted to burrowing, as well as larger mammals like skunks, foxes, and wolves. The southern areas are home to antelope. Avian life is represented by species such as bustards, eagles, kestrels, larks, and the gray partridge.

The steppe is also known for its chernozem, or black earth, distinguished by its exceptionally dark upper layer, often exceeding three feet (one meter) in thickness and rich in humus due to the dense grassland. The combination of winter frosts and summer droughts slows the decomposition of organic material, while high evaporation rates hinder leaching, leading to an accumulation of humus. Calcium compounds, initially leached away by the melting snow of spring, resurface during the summer, resulting in a lime-enriched layer beneath the humus. The chernozems’ low acidity and abundant humus content endow them with high natural fertility, contributing to the steppe’s status as a prime grain-producing region.

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