The territory of Siberia extends eastwards from the Ural Mountains to the watershed between the Pacific and Arctic drainage basins. The river Yenisey conditionally divides Siberia into two parts, Western and Eastern. Siberia stretches southwards from the Arctic Ocean to the hills of north-central Kazakhstan and to the national borders of Mongolia and China.
With an area of 13.1 million square kilometres (5,100,000 sq mi), Siberia accounts for 77% of Russia’s land area, but it is home to approximately 33 million people—23% of the country’s population. This is equivalent to an average population density of about 3 inhabitants per square kilometre (7.8/sq mi) (approximately equal to that of Australia), making Siberia one of the most sparsely populated regions on Earth. If it were a country by itself, it would still be the largest country by area, but in population it would be the world’s 35th-largest and Asia’s 14th-largest.
Climate change in Siberia
Worldwide, Siberia is well-known primarily for its long, harsh winters, with a January average of −25 °C (−13 °F), as well as its extensive history of use by Russian and Soviet governments as a place for prisons, labor camps, and internal exile. New insights in climate change research show very disturbing results for Siberias climate. The north of Siberia is an area covered by a layer of permafrost. The area has large temperature differences between winter (-42 Celsius up to 22 Celsius in Summer, but in 2020 the Spring temperatures in this area went up to 38 Celsius and combined with much higher temperatures at the Northpole in Winter, this is a strong indicator for global warming. In this area it could mean defrosting of the permafrost layer and the release of enormous amounts of methane gas, which will undoubtedly speed up the proces of global warming, causing the coastal waters to start defrosting. If that happens, the arctic sea will heat up too, because the sun beams that before were reflected by the white of the ice are now going to be absorbed by the darker icefree water. Furthermore it will reduce the amount of rainfall drastically and thus heighten the chance of bushfires (which have already increased in the 2019 and 2020). In these vast areas with melting permafrost and enourmous amounts of trees (Taiga), with almost no roads and no railway, it is virtually impossible for firemen to reach fires except by plane. This endangers the small communities that live here.
European influences, especially Russian, are strong in the southwestern and central part of the region, due to its high Russian population from Eastern Europe, which began to settle the area in the 18th-century CE. In the train this is noticible from 2 distinct things:
- The architecture of buildings which are visible from through the windows;
- The other travellers in the train and their language, ethniticity and clothes.
In the western part of the track The Wandelgek saw and talked with more European-like Russians travelling (mainly business men and commuters (specificly commuters towards or from Moscow).
In the eastern parts of the track The Wandelgek saw more local Siberians and Buryats (a Russian branch of the Mongols) travelling. Talking was not really possible because of the language barrier, although a few common English phrases were occasionally understood.
When travelling by train, geography is one of the most visible, noticeable things about travelling through Siberia (and Mongolia as well). I did describe some of that above when I introduced this blog, but there is a bit more to tell about Siberia.
First let me tell you that although this landscape is often described as boring, always repeating, neverending etcetera, it never for one single blink of a moment bored The Wandelgek. He thought of it as a complete delight to travel through. The lack of big changes made him wanna reflect on things of life, think about climate change, how harsh life must be for locals living here, how this huge country was explored, etcetera), read (travel-)books, listen to music on his iPod, sleep/dream, discuss politics/travel experiences/food with other travellers, eat, drink and most of all: Look through the windows).
With an area of 13.1 million square kilometres (5,100,000 sq mi), Siberia makes up roughly 77% of Russia’s total territory and almost 9% of Earth’s land surface (148,940,000 km2, 57,510,000 sq mi). While Siberia falls entirely within Asia, many authorities such as the UN geoscheme will not subdivide countries and will place all of Russia as part of Europe and/or Eastern Europe. Major geographical zones include the West Siberian Plain and the Central Siberian Plateau.
Eastern and central Sakha comprises numerous north–south mountain ranges of various ages. These mountains extend up to almost 3,000 metres (9,800 ft), but above a few hundred metres they are almost completely devoid of vegetation. The Verkhoyansk Range was extensively glaciated in the Pleistocene, but the climate was too dry for glaciation to extend to low elevations. At these low elevations are numerous valleys, many of them deep and covered with larch forest, except in the extreme north where the tundra dominates. Soils are mainly turbels (a type of gelisol). The active layer tends to be less than one metre deep, except near rivers.
The highest point in Siberia is the active volcano Klyuchevskaya Sopka, on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Its peak is at 4,750 metres (15,580 ft).
- Altai Mountains
- Anadyr Highlands
- Baikal Mountains
- Chersky Range
- Chukotka Mountains
- Dzhugdzhur Mountains
- Gydan Mountains
- Kolyma Mountains
- Koryak Mountains
- Sayan Mountains
- Tannu-Ola Mountains
- Ural Mountains
- Verkhoyansk Mountains
- Yablonoi Mountains
- Central Siberian Plateau
- Central Yakutian Lowland
- East Siberian Lowland
- East Siberian Mountains
- North Siberian Lowland
- South Siberian Mountains
- West Siberian Lowland
Lakes and rivers
- Lake Baikal
- Nizhnyaya Tunguska
- Novosibirsk Reservoir
- Podkamennaya Tunguska
- Upper Angara
- Uvs Nuur
- Ukok Plateau – part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The West Siberian Plain consists mostly of Cenozoic alluvial deposits and is somewhat flat. Many deposits on this plain result from ice dams which produced a large glacial lake. This mid- to late-Pleistocene lake blocked the northward flow of the Ob and Yenisey rivers, resulting in a redirection southwest into the Caspian and Aral seas via the Turgai Valley. The area is very swampy, and soils are mostly peaty histosols and, in the treeless northern part, histels. In the south of the plain, where permafrost is largely absent, rich grasslands that are an extension of the Kazakh Steppe formed the original vegetation, most of which is no longer visible.
The Central Siberian Plateau is an ancient craton (sometimes named Angaraland) that formed an independent continent before the Permian (see the Siberian continent). It is exceptionally rich in minerals, containing large deposits of gold, diamonds, and ores of manganese, lead, zinc, nickel, cobalt and molybdenum. Much of the area includes the Siberian Traps—a large igneous province. This massive eruptive period was approximately coincident with the Permian–Triassic extinction event. The volcanic event is said to be the largest known volcanic eruption in Earth’s history. Only the extreme northwest was glaciated during the Quaternary, but almost all is under exceptionally deep permafrost, and the only tree that can thrive, despite the warm summers, is the deciduous Siberian Larch (Larix sibirica) with its very shallow roots. Outside the extreme northwest, the taiga is dominant, covering a significant fraction of the entirety of Siberia. Soils here are mainly turbels, giving way to spodosols where the active layer becomes thicker and the ice content lower.
The Lena-Tunguska petroleum province includes the Central Siberian platform (some authors refer to it as the Eastern Siberian platform), bounded on the northeast and east by the Late Carboniferous through Jurassic Verkhoyansk foldbelt, on the northwest by the Paleozoic Taymr foldbelt, and on the southeast, south and southwest by the Middle Silurian to Middle Devonian Baykalian foldbelt. A regional geologic reconnaissance study begun in 1932, followed by surface and subsurface mapping, revealed the Markova-Angara Arch (anticline). This led to the discovery of the Markovo Oil Field in 1962 with the Markovo 1 well, which produced from the Early Cambrian Osa Horizon bar-sandstone at a depth of 2,156 metres (7,073 ft). The Sredne-Botuobin Gas Field was discovered in 1970, producing from the Osa and the Proterozoic Parfenovo Horizon. The Yaraktin Oil Field was discovered in 1971, producing from the Vendian Yaraktin Horizon at depths of up to 1,750 metres (5,740 ft), which lies below Permian to Lower Jurassic basalt traps.
Vegetation in Siberia is mostly taiga, with a tundra belt on the northern fringe, and a temperate forest zone in the south.
The climate of Siberia varies dramatically, but it typically has short summers and long, brutally cold winters. On the north coast, north of the Arctic Circle, there is a very short (about one month long) summer.
Almost all the population lives in the south, along the Trans-Siberian Railway. The climate in this southernmost part is Humid continental climate (Köppen Dfb) with cold winters but fairly warm summers lasting at least four months. The annual average is about 0.5 °C (32.9 °F). January averages about −20 °C (−4 °F) and July about +19 °C (66 °F) while daytime temperatures in summer typically are above 20 °C (68 °F). With a reliable growing season, an abundance of sunshine and exceedingly fertile chernozem soils, southern Siberia is good enough for profitable agriculture, as was proven in the early 20th century.
By far the most commonly occurring climate in Siberia is continental subarctic (Koppen Dfc or Dwc), with the annual average temperature about −5 °C (23 °F) and an average for January of −25 °C (−13 °F) and an average for July of +17 °C (63 °F), although this varies considerably, with a July average about 10 °C (50 °F) in the taiga–tundra ecotone. The Business oriented website and blog Business Insider lists Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon, in Siberia’s Sakha Republic, as being in competition for the title of the Northern Hemisphere’s Pole of Cold. Oymyakon is a village which recorded a temperature of −67.7 °C (−89.9 °F) on 6 February 1933. Verkhoyansk, a town further north and further inland, recorded a temperature of −69.8 °C (−93.6 °F) for three consecutive nights: 5, 6 and 7 February 1933. Each town is alternately considered the Northern Hemisphere’s Pole of Cold, meaning the coldest inhabited point in the Northern hemisphere. Each town also frequently reaches 86 °F (30 °C) in the summer, giving them, and much of the rest of Russian Siberia, the world’s greatest temperature variation between summer’s highs and winter’s lows, often being well over 170–180+ °F (94–100+ °C) between the seasons.
Southwesterly winds bring warm air from Central Asia and the Middle East. The climate in West Siberia (Omsk, Novosibirsk) is several degrees warmer than in the East (Irkutsk, Chita) where in the north an extreme winter subarctic climate (Köppen Dfd or Dwd) prevails. But summer temperatures in other regions can reach +38 °C (100 °F). In general, Sakha is the coldest Siberian region, and the basin of the Yana has the lowest temperatures of all, with permafrost reaching 1,493 metres (4,898 ft). Nevertheless, as far as Imperial Russian plans of settlement were concerned, cold was never viewed as an impediment. In the winter, southern Siberia sits near the center of the semi-permanent Siberian High, so winds are usually light in the winter.
Precipitation in Siberia is generally low, exceeding 500 millimetres (20 in) only in Kamchatka where moist winds flow from the Sea of Okhotsk onto high mountains – producing the region’s only major glaciers, though volcanic eruptions and low summer temperatures allow limited forests to grow. Precipitation is high also in most of Primorye in the extreme south where monsoonal influences can produce quite heavy summer rainfall.
Researchers, including Sergei Kirpotin at Tomsk State University and Judith Marquand at Oxford University, warn that Western Siberia has begun to thaw as a result of global warming. The frozen peat bogs in this region may hold billions of tons of methane gas, which may be released into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas 22 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. In 2008, a research expedition for the American Geophysical Union detected levels of methane up to 100 times above normal in the atmosphere above the Siberian Arctic, likely the result of methane clathrates being released through holes in a frozen ‘lid’ of seabed permafrost, around the outfall of the Lena and the area between the Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea.
Pleistocene Park has been created in Siberia in order to do research in relation Siberia and global warming, including working towards possible solutions to the problem.
During past millennia different groups of nomads – such as the Enets, the Nenets, the Huns, the Xiongnu, the Scythians and the Uyghurs inhabited various parts of Siberia. The proto-Mongol Khitan people also occupied parts of the region. In 630 the Khan of Sibir in the vicinity of modern Tobolsk was known as a prominent figure who endorsed Kubrat as Khagan of Old Great Bulgaria. In the 13th century, during the period of the Mongol Empire, the Mongols conquered a large part of this area.
With the breakup of the Golden Horde, the autonomous Khanate of Sibir formed in the late-15th century. Turkic-speaking Yakut migrated north from the Lake Baikal region under pressure from the Mongol tribes during the 13th to 15th century. Siberia remained a sparsely populated area. Historian John F. Richards wrote: “… it is doubtful that the total early modern Siberian population exceeded 300,000 persons”.
The growing power of Russia in the West began to undermine the Siberian Khanate in the 16th century. First, groups of traders and Cossacks began to enter the area. The Russian Army was directed to establish forts farther and farther east to protect new settlers who migrated from European Russia. Towns such as Mangazeya, Tara, Yeniseysk and Tobolsk developed, the last becoming the de facto capital of Siberia from 1590. At this time, Sibir was the name of a fortress at Qashlik, near Tobolsk. Gerardus Mercator, in a map published in 1595, marks Sibier both as the name of a settlement and of the surrounding territory along a left tributary of the Ob. Other sources contend that the Xibe, an indigenous Tungusic people, offered fierce resistance to Russian expansion beyond the Urals. Some suggest that the term “Siberia” is a russification of their ethnonym.
By the mid-17th century Russia had established areas of control that extended to the Pacific. Some 230,000 Russians had settled in Siberia by 1709. Siberia became one of the destinations for sending internal exiles.
The first great modern change in Siberia was the Trans-Siberian Railway, constructed during 1891–1916. It linked Siberia more closely to the rapidly industrialising Russia of Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917). Around seven million people moved to Siberia from European Russia between 1801 and 1914. Between 1859 and 1917 more than half a million people migrated to the Russian Far East. Siberia has extensive natural resources: during the 20th century, large-scale exploitation of these took place, and industrial towns cropped up throughout the region.
At 7:15 a.m. on 30 June 1908 the Tunguska Event felled millions of trees near the Podkamennaya Tunguska (Stony Tunguska) in central Siberia. Most scientists believe this resulted from the air burst of a meteor or a comet. Even though no crater has ever been found, the landscape in the (sparsely inhabited) area still bears the scars of this event.
In the early decades of the Soviet Union (especially in the 1930s and 1940s), the government used the Gulag state agency to administer a system of penal labour camps, replacing the previous katorga system. According to semi-official Soviet estimates, which did not become public until after the fall of the Soviet government in 1991, from 1929 to 1953 more than 14 million people passed through these camps and prisons, many of them in Siberia. Another seven to eight million people were internally deported to remote areas of the Soviet Union (including entire nationalities or ethnicities in several cases).
Half a million (516,841) prisoners died in camps from 1941 to 1943 due to food shortages caused by World War II. At other periods, mortality was comparatively lower. The size, scope, and scale of the Gulag slave-labour camps remain subjects of much research and debate. Many Gulag camps operated in extremely remote areas of northeastern Siberia. The best-known clusters included Sevvostlag (the North-East Camps) along the Kolyma and Norillag near Norilsk, where 69,000 prisoners lived in 1952. Major industrial cities of Northern Siberia, such as Norilsk and Magadan, developed from camps built by prisoners and run by former prisoners.
From the era of Imperial Russia, to Soviet Russia, to modern Russia, all forms of extradition to Siberia have used a brutal system of prisoner transport called Road Prisons (étapes).
Borders and administrative division
The term “Siberia” has a long history. Its meaning has gradually changed during ages. Historically, Siberia was defined as the whole part of Russia to the east of Ural Mountains, including the Russian Far East. According to this definition, Siberia extended eastward from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific coast, and southward from the Arctic Ocean to the border of Russian Central Asia and the national borders of both Mongolia and China.
Soviet-era sources (Great Soviet Encyclopedia and others) and modern Russian ones usually define Siberia as a region extending eastward from the Ural Mountains to the watershed between Pacific and Arctic drainage basins, and southward from the Arctic Ocean to the hills of north-central Kazakhstan and the national borders of both Mongolia and China. By this definition, Siberia includes the federal subjects of the Siberian Federal District, and some of the Ural Federal District, as well as Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, which is a part of the Far Eastern Federal District. Geographically, this definition includes subdivisions of several other subjects of Urals and Far Eastern federal districts, but they are not included administratively. This definition excludes Sverdlovsk Oblast and Chelyabinsk Oblast, both of which are included in some wider definitions of Siberia.
Other sources may use either a somewhat wider definition that states the Pacific coast, not the watershed, is the eastern boundary (thus including the whole Russian Far East) or a somewhat narrower one that limits Siberia to the Siberian Federal District (thus excluding all subjects of other districts). In Russian, the word for Siberia is used as a substitute for the name of the federal district by those who live in the district itself and less commonly used to denote the federal district by people residing outside of it.
The most populous city of Siberia, as well as the third most populous city of Russia, is the city of Novosibirsk.
Other major cities include:
Wider definitions of Siberia also include:
- Yekaterinburg – Some sources such as Encyclopædia Britannica include this city as it lies in the Ural Mountains. Inhabitants have distanced themselves though saying that there is a difference between Siberian and Urals culture. Yekaterinburg is the 4th largest town of Russia.
Siberia is extraordinarily rich in minerals, containing ores of almost all economically valuable metals. It has some of the world’s largest deposits of nickel, gold, lead, coal, molybdenum, gypsum, diamonds, diopside, silver and zinc, as well as extensive unexploited resources of oil and natural gas. Around 70% of Russia’s developed oil fields are in the Khanty-Mansiysk region. Russia contains about 40% of the world’s known resources of nickel at the Norilsk deposit in Siberia. Norilsk Nickel is the world’s biggest nickel and palladium producer.
Siberian agriculture is severely restricted by the short growing season of most of the region. However, in the southwest where soils are exceedingly fertile black earths and the climate is a little more moderate, there is extensive cropping of wheat, barley, rye and potatoes, along with the grazing of large numbers of sheep and cattle. Elsewhere food production, owing to the poor fertility of the podzolic soils and the extremely short growing seasons, is restricted to the herding of reindeer in the tundra—which has been practiced by natives for over 10,000 years. Siberia has the world’s largest forests. Timber remains an important source of revenue, even though many forests in the east have been logged much more rapidly than they are able to recover. The Sea of Okhotsk is one of the two or three richest fisheries in the world owing to its cold currents and very large tidal ranges, and thus Siberia produces over 10% of the world’s annual fish catch, although fishing has declined somewhat since the collapse of the USSR.
While the development of renewable energy in Russia is held back by the lack of a conducive government policy framework, Siberia still offers special opportunities for off-grid renewable energy developments. Remote parts of Siberia are too costly to connect to central electricity and gas grids, and have therefore historically been supplied with costly diesel, sometimes flown in by helicopter. In such cases renewable energy is often cheaper.