Geography of Siberia

Sunset on the ice of Lake Baikal, Siberia

Anton Petrus/Getty Images 

Siberia is the region making up nearly all of Northern Asia. It is made up of the central and eastern portions of Russia and it encompasses the area from the Ural Mountains east to the Pacific Ocean. It also extends from the Arctic Ocean south to northern Kazakhstan and the borders of Mongolia and China. In total Siberia covers 5.1 million square miles (13.1 million sq km) or 77% of Russia's territory.

History of Siberia

Siberia has a long history that dates back to prehistoric times. Evidence of some of the earliest human species has been found in southern Siberia that dates back to about 40,000 years ago. These species include Homo neanderthalensis, the species before humans, and Homo sapiens, humans, as well as a currently unidentified species whose fossils were found in March 2010.

In the early 13th century the area of present-day Siberia was conquered by the Mongols. Prior to that time, Siberia was inhabited by various nomadic groups. In the 14th century, the independent Siberian Khanate was established after the breakup of the Golden Horde in 1502.

In the 16th century, Russia began to grow in power and it started to take lands from the Siberian Khanate. Initially, the Russian army began to establish forts farther east and eventually it developed the towns of Tara, Yeniseysk, and Tobolsk and extended its area of control to the Pacific Ocean. Outside of these towns, however, most of Siberia was sparsely populated and only traders and explorers entered the region. In the 19th century, Imperial Russia and its territories began sending prisoners to Siberia. At its height, around 1.2 million prisoners were sent to Siberia.

Beginning in 1891, the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway began to link Siberia to the rest of Russia. From 1801 to 1914, about seven million people moved from European Russia to Siberia and from 1859 to 1917 (after the construction of the railroad was complete) over 500,000 people moved to Siberia. In 1893, Novosibirsk was founded, which today is Siberia's largest city, and in the 20th century, industrial towns grew throughout the region as Russia began to exploit its many natural resources.

In the early to mid-1900s, Siberia continued to grow in population as natural resource extraction became the main economic practice of the region. In addition, during the time of the Soviet Union, prison labor camps were set up in Siberia that were similar to those created earlier by Imperial Russia. From 1929 to 1953, over 14 million people worked in these camps.

Today Siberia has a population of 36 million people and it is divided into several different districts. The region also has a number of major cities, of which Novosibirsk is the largest with a population of 1.3 million people.

Geography and Climate of Siberia

Siberia has a total area of over 5.1 million square miles (13.1 million sq km) and as such, it has a highly varied topography that covers several different geographic zones. The major geographical zones of Siberia, however, are the West Siberian Plateau and the Central Siberian Plateau. The West Siberian Plateau is mainly flat and swampy. The northern portions of the plateau are dominated by permafrost, while the southern areas are comprised of grasslands.

The Central Siberian Plateau is an ancient volcanic region that is rich in natural materials and minerals like manganese, lead, zinc, nickel, and cobalt. It also has areas with deposits of diamonds and gold. However, most of this area is under permafrost and the dominant landscape type outside of the extreme northern areas (which are tundra) is taiga.

Outside of these major regions, Siberia has several rugged mountain ranges that include the Ural Mountains, the Altai Mountains, and the Verkhoyansk Range. The highest point in Siberia is Klyuchevskaya Sopka, an active volcano on the Kamchatka Peninsula, at 15,253 feet (4,649 m). Siberia is also home to Lake Baikal - the world's oldest and deepest lake. Lake Baikal is estimated to be around 30 million years old and, at its deepest point, it is 5,387 feet (1,642 meters) deep. It also contains about 20% of the Earth's non-frozen water.

Nearly all of the vegetation in Siberia is taiga, but there are tundra areas on in its northern areas and an area of temperate forests in the south. Most of Siberia's climate is subarctic and precipitation is low except for the Kamchatka Peninsula. The average January low temperature of Novosibirsk, Siberia's largest city, is -4˚F (-20˚C), while the average July high is 78˚F (26˚C).

Economy and People of Siberia

Siberia is rich in minerals and natural resources which led to its early development and makes up the majority of its economy today as agriculture is limited due to permafrost and a short growing season. As a result of the rich mineral and natural resource supplies, the region today has a total population of 36 million people. Most of the people are of Russian and Ukrainian descent but there are also ethnic Germans and other groups. In the far eastern parts of Siberia, there is also a considerable amount of Chinese. Nearly all of Siberia's population (70%) lives in cities.

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Briney, Amanda. "Geography of Siberia." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Briney, Amanda. (2020, August 27). Geography of Siberia. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Geography of Siberia." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).