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Earth Sense: Rivers, lakes highlight Siberian tundra
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Flying over the frozen vastness of the Siberian tundra, en route to China, isn’t colorful at this time of the year. Almost everything is covered by snow or ice, and the landscape is mostly flat.

The feature that stands out most prominently are the rivers. On that level terrain, the water has more flow energy than it uses by moving. This makes each stream swing back and forth, creating a crazy pattern of shallow, snakelike valleys. Where a river makes a turn so steep that it catches up with itself, the meander breaks open, and the water follows the new shorter course. A patchwork of crescent-shaped lakes, so-called oxbow lakes, dominates the view in those places.

There aren’t any glaciers in those plains. The continental ice sheets that covered the area for 18,000 years have long since melted.

Scattered far apart are the Siberian towns, even sizable cities like Yakutsk or Verkhoyansk. Many carry a special distinction. Perm, for example, was home to the infamous Siberian hard labor camps of the Soviet Union. They provided material for the captivating “Gulag” tales by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Verkhoyansk holds the record for the coldest temperature ever measured north of the equator: minus 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Some entrepreneurs actually offer guided bus tours of wintry Siberia.

Like in Alaska, much of the ground is on top of permafrost. That’s a layer of permanently frozen soil at a depth of maybe 3 feet. During summer, the top layer melts, and with drainage inhibited by the frozen stuff below, a muddy swamp develops.

Mosquitoes breed in the wet goo and enjoy a brief but busy life that can drive humans to the point of nervous breakdown. Summer hikers in the tundra wear beekeepers’ hats and nets to keep the insects at bay.

A close-up look at the tundra from above reveals lots of small circular lakes. They have nothing to do with the artificial ponds seen on Georgia’s farmland, and no cows are bathing in them.

The small lakes form when underground lenses of ice melt, and the soil above them subsides. Surface frost can even heave a raised rim up around the lakes, resembling small volcanoes. Nearby, needle ice grows underneath small stones, lifts them and melts off to one side, displacing the stones. From the air, it looks like a giant is decorating the landscape with lacework.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at