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Ural Mountains
Ural Mountains

The Ural Mountains (/ˈjʊərəl/; Russian: Ура́льские го́ры, tr. Uralskiye gory, IPA: [ʊˈralʲskʲɪjə ˈgorɨ]; Bashkir: Урал тауҙары, Ural tauźarı), or simply the Urals, are a mountain range that runs approximately from north to south through western Russia, from the coast of the Arctic Ocean to the Ural River and northwestern Kazakhstan.[1] The mountain range forms part of the conventional boundary between the continents of Europe and Asia. Vaygach Island and the islands of Novaya Zemlya form a further continuation of the chain to the north into the Arctic Ocean.

The mountains lie within the Ural geographical region and significantly overlap with the Ural Federal District and with the Ural economic region. They have rich resources, including metal ores, coal, and precious and semi-precious stones. Since the 18th century the mountains have contributed significantly to the mineral sector of the Russian economy.


As attested by Sigismund von Herberstein, in the 16th century Russians called the range by a variety of names derived from the Russian words for rock (stone) and belt. The modern Russian name for the Urals (Урал, Ural), first appearing in the 16th–17th century when the Russian conquest of Siberia was in its heroic phase, was initially applied to its southern parts and gained currency as the name of the entire range during the 18th century. It might have been a borrowing from either Turkic "stone belt"[2] (Bashkir, where the same name is used for the range), or Ob-Ugric.[3] From the 13th century, in Bashkortostan there has been a legend about a hero named Ural. He sacrificed his life for the sake of his people and they poured a stone pile over his grave, which later turned into the Ural Mountains.[4][5][6] Possibilities include Bashkir үр "elevation; upland" and Mansi ур ала "mountain peak, top of the mountain",[7] V.N. Tatischev believes that this oronym is set to "belt" and associates it with the Turkic verb oralu- "gird".[7] I.G. Dobrodomov suggests a transition from Aral to Ural explained on the basis of ancient Bulgar-Chuvash dialects. Geographer E.V. Hawks believes that the name goes back to the Bashkir folklore Ural-Batyr.[7] The Evenk geographical term era "mountain" has also been theorized.[7] Finno-Ugrist scholars consider Ural deriving from the Ostyak word urr meaning "chain of mountains".[8] Turkologists, on the other hand, have achieved majority support for their assertion that 'ural' in Tatar means a belt, and recall that an earlier name for the range was 'stone belt'.[9]


As Middle-Eastern merchants traded with the Bashkirs and other people living on the western slopes of the Ural as far north as Great Perm, since at least the 10th century medieval mideastern geographers had been aware of the existence of the mountain range in its entirety, stretching as far as to the Arctic Ocean in the north. The first Russian mention of the mountains to the east of the East European Plain is provided by the Primary Chronicle, when it describes the Novgorodian expedition to the upper reaches of the Pechora in 1096. During the next few centuries Novgorodians engaged in fur trading with the local population and collected tribute from Yugra and Great Perm, slowly expanding southwards. The rivers Chusovaya and Belaya were first mentioned in the chronicles of 1396 and 1468, respectively. In 1430 the town of Solikamsk (Kama Salt) was founded on the Kama at the foothills of the Ural, where salt was produced in open pans. Ivan III of Moscow captured Perm, Pechora and Yugra from the declining Novgorod Republic in 1472. With the excursions of 1483 and 1499–1500 across the Ural Moscow managed to subjugate Yugra completely.

Nevertheless, around that time early 16th century Polish geographer Maciej of Miechów in his influential Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis (1517) argued that there were no mountains in Eastern Europe at all, challenging the point of view of some authors of Classical antiquity, popular during the Renaissance. Only after Sigismund von Herberstein in his Notes on Muscovite Affairs (1549) had reported, following Russian sources, that there are mountains behind the Pechora and identified them with the Riphean Mountains and Hyperboreans of ancient authors, did the existence of the Ural, or at least of its northern part, become firmly established in the Western geography. The Middle and Southern Ural were still largely unavailable and unknown to the Russian or Western European geographers.

In the 1550s, after the Tsardom of Russia had defeated the Khanate of Kazan and proceeded to gradually annex the lands of the Bashkirs, the Russians finally reached the southern part of the mountain chain. In 1574 they founded Ufa. The upper reaches of the Kama and Chusovaya in the Middle Ural, still unexplored, as well as parts of Transuralia still held by the hostile Siberian Khanate, were granted to the Stroganovs by several decrees of the tsar in 1558–1574. The Stroganovs' land provided the staging ground for Yermak's incursion into Siberia. Yermak crossed the Ural from the Chusovaya to the Tagil around 1581. In 1597 Babinov's road was built across the Ural from Solikamsk to the valley of the Tura, where the town of Verkhoturye (Upper Tura) was founded in 1598. Customs was established in Verkhoturye shortly thereafter and the road was made the only legal connection between European Russia and Siberia for a long time. In 1648 the town of Kungur was founded at the western foothills of the Middle Ural. During the 17th century the first deposits of iron and copper ores, mica, gemstones and other minerals were discovered in the Ural.

Iron and copper smelting works emerged. They multiplied particularly quickly during the reign of Peter I of Russia. In 1720–1722 he commissioned Vasily Tatishchev to oversee and develop the mining and smelting works in the Ural. Tatishchev proposed a new copper smelting factory in Yegoshikha, which would eventually become the core of the city of Perm and a new iron smelting factory on the Iset, which would become the largest in the world at the time of construction and give birth to the city of Yekaterinburg. Both factories were actually founded by Tatishchev's successor, Georg Wilhelm de Gennin, in 1723. Tatishchev returned to the Ural on the order of Empress Anna to succeed de Gennin in 1734–1737. Transportation of the output of the smelting works to the markets of European Russia necessitated the construction of the Siberian Route from Yekaterinburg across the Ural to Kungur and Yegoshikha (Perm) and further to Moscow, which was completed in 1763 and rendered Babinov's road obsolete. In 1745 gold was discovered in the Ural at Beryozovskoye and later at other deposits. It has been mined since 1747.

The first ample geographic survey of the Ural Mountains was completed in the early 18th century by the Russian historian and geographer Vasily Tatishchev under the orders of Peter I. Earlier, in the 17th century, rich ore deposits were discovered in the mountains and their systematic extraction began in the early 18th century, eventually turning the region into the largest mineral base of Russia.[1][4]

One of the first scientific descriptions of the mountains was published in 1770–71.

The first railway across the Ural had been built by 1878 and linked Perm to Yekaterinburg via Chusovoy, Kushva and Nizhny Tagil. In 1890 a railway linked Ufa and Chelyabinsk via Zlatoust. In 1896 this section became a part of the Trans-Siberian Railway. In 1909 yet another railway connecting Perm and Yekaterinburg passed through Kungur by the way of the Siberian Route. It has eventually replaced the Ufa – Chelyabinsk section as the main trunk of the Trans-Siberian railway.

The highest peak of the Ural, Mount Narodnaya, (elevation 1,895 m (6,217 ft)) was identified in 1927.[12]

During the Soviet industrialization in the 1930s the city of Magnitogorsk was founded in the South-Eastern Ural as a center of iron smelting and steelmaking. During the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941–1942, the mountains became a key element in Nazi planning for the territories which they expected to conquer in the USSR. Faced with the threat of having a significant part of the Soviet territories occupied by the enemy, the government evacuated many of the industrial enterprises of European Russia and Ukraine to the eastern foothills of the Ural, considered a safe place out of reach of the German bombers and troops. Three giant tank factories were established at the Uralmash in Sverdlovsk (as Yekaterinburg used to be known), Uralvagonzavod in Nizhny Tagil, and Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant in Chelyabinsk. After the war, in 1947–1948, Chum – Labytnangi railway, built with the forced labor of Gulag inmates, crossed the Polar Ural.

Mayak, 150 km southeast of Yekaterinburg, was a center of the Soviet nuclear industry[1][13][14][15] and site of the Kyshtym disaster.[14][16]

Geography and topography

The Ural Mountains extend about 2,500 km (1,600 mi) from the Kara Sea to the Kazakh Steppe along the border of Kazakhstan. Vaygach Island and the island of Novaya Zemlya form a further continuation of the chain on the north. Geographically this range marks the northern part of the border between the continents of Europe and Asia. Its highest peak is Mount Narodnaya, approximately 1,895 m (6,217 ft) in elevation.[1]

By topography and other natural features, the Urals are divided, from north to south, into the Polar (or Arctic), Nether-Polar (or Sub-Arctic), Northern, Central and Southern parts.

The Polar Urals extend for about 385 kilometers (239 mi) from Mount Konstantinov Kamen in the north to the Khulga River in the south; they have an area of about 25,000 km2 (9,700 sq mi) and a strongly dissected relief.

The mountains of the Polar Ural have exposed rock with sharp ridges, though flattened or rounded tops are also found.[1][4]

The Nether-Polar Ural are higher, and up to 150 km (93 mi) wider than the Polar Urals.

The Northern Ural consist of a series of parallel ridges up to 1,000–1,200 m (3,300–3,900 ft) in height and longitudinal hollows.

The Central Ural are the lowest part of the Ural, with smooth mountain tops, the highest mountain being 994 m (3,261 ft) (Basegi); they extend south from the Ufa River.[4]

The relief of the Southern Ural is more complex, with numerous valleys and parallel ridges directed south-west and meridionally.


The Urals are among the world's oldest extant mountain ranges. For its age of 250 to 300 million years, the elevation of the mountains is unusually high. They formed during the Uralian orogeny due to the collision of the eastern edge of the supercontinent Laurussia with the young and rheologically weak continent of Kazakhstania, which now underlies much of Kazakhstan and West Siberia west of the Irtysh, and intervening island arcs. The collision lasted nearly 90 million years in the late Carboniferous – early Triassic.[17][18][19][20] Unlike the other major orogens of the Paleozoic (Appalachians, Caledonides, Variscides), the Urals have not undergone post-orogenic extensional collapse and are unusually well preserved for their age, being underlaid by a pronounced crustal root.[21][22] East and south of the Urals much of the orogen is buried beneath later Mesozoic and Cenozoic sediments.[17] The adjacent Pay-Khoy Ridge to the north and Novaya Zemlya are not a part of the Uralian orogen and formed later.

Many deformed and metamorphosed rocks, mostly of Paleozoic age, surface within the Urals. The sedimentary and volcanic layers are folded and faulted. The sediments to the west of the Ural Mountains are formed of limestone, dolomite and sandstone left from ancient shallow seas. The eastern side is dominated by basalts.[4]

The western slope of the Ural Mountains has predominantly karst topography, especially in the Sylva River basin, which is a tributary of the Chusovaya River. It is composed of severely eroded sedimentary rocks (sandstones and limestones) that are about 350 million years old. There are many caves, sinkholes and underground streams. The karst topography is much less developed on the eastern slopes. The eastern slopes are relatively flat, with some hills and rocky outcrops and contain alternating volcanic and sedimentary layers dated to the middle Paleozoic Era.[4] Most high mountains consist of weather-resistant rocks such as quartzite, schist and gabbro that are between 570 and 395 million years old. The river valleys are underlain by limestone.[1]

The Ural Mountains contain about 48 species of economically valuable ores and economically valuable minerals. Eastern regions are rich in chalcopyrite, nickel oxide, gold, platinum, chromite and magnetite ores, as well as in coal (Chelyabinsk Oblast), bauxite, talc, fireclay and abrasives. The Western Urals contain deposits of coal, oil, natural gas (Ishimbay and Krasnokamsk areas) and potassium salts. Both slopes are rich in bituminous coal and lignite, and the largest deposit of bituminous coal is in the north (Pechora field). The specialty of the Urals is precious and semi-precious stones, such as emerald, amethyst, aquamarine, jasper, rhodonite, malachite and diamond. Some of the deposits, such as the magnetite ores at Magnitogorsk, are already nearly depleted.[1][4]

Rivers and lakes

Many rivers originate in the Ural Mountains.

The mountains contain a number of deep lakes.[23] The eastern slopes of the Southern and Central Urals have most of these, among the largest of which are the Uvildy, Itkul, Turgoyak, and Tavatuy lakes.[4] The lakes found on the western slopes are less numerous and also smaller. Lake Bolshoye Shchuchye, the deepest lake in the Polar Urals, is 136 meters (446 ft) deep. Other lakes, too, are found in the glacial valleys of this region. Spas and sanatoriums have been built to take advantage of the medicinal muds found in some of the mountain lakes.[1][4]


The climate of the Urals is continental.


The landscapes of the Urals vary with both latitude and longitude and are dominated by forests and steppes.

Forest landscapes of the Urals are diverse, especially in the southern part.


The Ural forests are inhabited by animals typical of Siberia, such as elk, brown bear, fox, wolf, wolverine, lynx, squirrel, and sable (north only). Because of the easy accessibility of the mountains there are no specifically mountainous species. In the Middle Urals, one can see a rare mixture of sable and pine marten named kidus. In the Southern Urals, badger and black polecat are common. Reptiles and amphibians live mostly in the Southern and Central Ural and are represented by the common viper, lizards and grass snakes. Bird species are represented by capercaillie, black grouse, hazel grouse, spotted nutcracker, and cuckoos. In summers, the South and Middle Urals are visited by songbirds, such as nightingale and redstart.[1][4]

The steppes of the Southern Urals are dominated by hares and rodents such as gophers, susliks, and jerboa. There are many birds of prey such as lesser kestrel and buzzards. The animals of the Polar Urals are few and are characteristic of the tundra; they include Arctic fox, lemming, and reindeer. The birds of these areas include rough-legged buzzard, snowy owl, tundra partridge, and rock ptarmigan.[1][4]


The continuous and intensive economic development of the last centuries has affected the fauna, and wildlife is much diminished around all industrial centers.

The area has also been severely damaged by the plutonium-producing facility Mayak opened in Chelyabinsk-40 (later called Chelyabinsk-65, Ozyorsk), in the Southern Ural, after World War II.[1] Its plants went into operation in 1948 and, for the first ten years, dumped unfiltered radioactive waste into the Techa River and Lake Karachay.[1][13][14] In 1990, efforts were underway to contain the radiation in one of the lakes, which was estimated at the time to expose visitors to 500 millirem per day.[14] As of 2006, 500 mrem in the natural environment was the upper limit of exposure considered safe for a member of the general public in an entire year (though workplace exposure over a year could exceed that by a factor of 10).[15] Over 23,000 km2 (8,900 sq mi) of land were contaminated in 1957 from a storage tank explosion, only one of several serious accidents that further polluted the region.[1] The 1957 accident expelled 20 million curies of radioactive material, 90% of which settled into the land immediately around the facility.[16] Although some reactors of Mayak were shut down in 1987 and 1990,[14] the facility keeps producing plutonium.[24]

Cultural significance

The Urals have been viewed by Russians as a "treasure box" of mineral resources, which were the basis for its extensive industrial development.

The region served as a military stronghold during Peter the Great's Great Northern War with Sweden, during Stalin's rule when the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Complex was built and Russian industry relocated to the Urals during the Nazi advance at the beginning of World War II, and as the center of the Soviet nuclear industry during the Cold War. Extreme levels of air, water, and radiological contamination and pollution by industrial wastes resulted. Population exodus resulted, and economic depression at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in post-Soviet times additional mineral exploration, particularly in the northern Urals, has been productive and the region has attracted industrial investment.[25]

See also

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