Steppes: the last islands of nature

    26 Sep 2021

    The last islands of wildlife are hidden among the network of cities and industrial giants of Eurasia. These are the last pearls of the once majestic ecosystem. Let’s talk today about the steppes.

    I thank eco-activist Oleksiy Burkovsky and zoologist Oleksiy Vasyliuk, the screenwriters of the documentary “Torsky Steppes,” for helpful information.

    Global conditions on the planet Earth are a mosaic consisting of natural conditions of each separate district. Any local or regional ecosystem makes a significant contribution to this planetary process, and the steppes too.

    (By the way, the desert as an ecosystem is also unique. It’s not a dead wasteland, as it may seem from the point of view of a “civilized inhabitant of the West.” But about this, let’s express reflections in a separate article).

    An ecosystem is a set of living organisms adapted to living together in a specific environment, forming a single whole with this environment. Ecosystems vary in size. Both a small steppe area and the whole set of steppes of Eurasia are an ecosystem. The first is local; the second is mainland.

    Extensive parameters of climate and other components of the environment are determined by space and geological factors. While the narrow environmental conditions suitable for the existence of any species, including humans, are created by wildlife.

    For hundreds of millions of years, organisms have formed the environment of their existence. They have become one of the most powerful geological factors on the planet. Humanity continues to exist due to the enormous work done by wildlife in previous epochs and which its remnants continue to do today. Without wildlife, air composition, water regime, the cycle of substances, and other narrow environment parameters would become unfit for human life.

    On the one hand, any local steppe ecosystem is unique. On the other hand, it obeys the general laws of nature. Therefore, on the example of one of them, we can observe the processes inherent in the steppe ecosystem of the whole region or country.

    When we talk about the steppe, we usually see images of endless steppe spaces, well known to us from historical and fiction literature. Unfortunately, these images are far from the realities of today. And few people think about how the last steppe areas, which have no protection status or are purely protected, survive. What is happening on these small islands that continue to stay in the ocean of man-made landscapes?

    To better understand the present, let’s think about the past of the steppe. Geological epochs have changed the face of European terrain many times. If we were in the steppes in the Coal Age, 300-350 million years ago, we would think we were on another planet. In those days, there were vast expanses of tropical swamps covered with ferns, flounder, and horsetails. Today, the descendants of these plants are mainly shrubs or semi-shrubs. But in those days, the height of certain species of ferns reached 30 m. By the way, the easiest way to find such fossils of the past is to visit the European steppes.

    Insects of that time also differed in size. For example, some dragonflies had a wingspan of up to 1 meter.

    Sandstone is a silent witness to those eras when the current steppe was a completely different world.

    Over time, over millions of years, water and land have replaced each other many times. As a result, such rocks as sandstone, chalk, and limestone were formed. Areas of the bottom of the former seas today create the most exciting steppe landscapes.

    Why should the steppes of Eurasia be protected? Because they affect the microclimate and, ultimately, create the ecosystem services that I’ve written about in previous columns. It is wild insects, not domestic bees, the primary pollinators of grain in Eurasia. It is natural ecosystems that provide water filtration and the fact that Europeans drink relatively clean water from rivers and springs. And such services can be listed in the dozens.

    Are you interested in the topic? Check here our author’s story about what’s more valuable – forest ecosystem services or economic growth.

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