Ust Nera, north central Siberia.

by | May 15, 2021

Ust Nera is the northern-most community on the single road that traverses Siberia from Novosibirsk to Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk.  Located at 64 30 degrees north latitude and 500 m elevation it experiences an extremely continental northern climate. This region is widely underlain by permafrost. Ken Marr and Richard Hebda visited this community in 2011 on an expedition to collect alpine plants for DNA studies. They were surprised to discover an insulated greenhouse heated by coal (locally abundant) full of tomatoes, zucchini and even melons.

Figure 1. Ken Marr (left) and Richard Hebda (right) sitting on raised potato bed, Ust Nera Siberia July
2011. Photo Marina Olonova, Tomsk State University.

Outside the greenhouse on its south-facing side grew a luxurious patch of potatoes (Figure 1). The potatoes were not in contact with the greenhouse wall, instead grew in a separate raised bed approximately 50cm high enclosed in 2cm thick boards. The bed was perhaps 1.2m wide and 3m or more long.  The soil was a dark loam. Presumably, the dark soil being raised well above the grade permitted it to warm up quickly once frost passed and sufficiently to sustain early and rapid growth of the tubers.

Figure 2. Potatoes flowering in raised bed, Ust Nera, Siberia late July 2011. Photo Richard Hebda.

The plants were observed in late July fully grown with white flowers. We did not observe the potatoes themselves, but assume they were well formed as is typical at this stage of development. Several such raised beds were observed  (Figure 2).

Figure 3. Climate diagram for Ust Nera, Siberia. Source: Customweather 2021.

The climate of Ust Nera is extreme (Figure 3) nevertheless potatoes seem to be easily grown.  The growing season is at best three months long from June to August during which average daily minimum temperatures are only slightly above freezing. Average daily maximum temperatures reach 23C in July but are only 13C in August. The climate is extremely dry having only 266mm of precipitation per year. In mid to warm latitudes these would be considered desert conditions. Fortunately, most of the precipitation falls as rain between June and September. On the basis of these data, it would appear that basically a two month growing season of June and July (planting assumed to be in May) is sufficient to yield a crop of potatoes. The crop success is likely supported by long summer days and relatively warm daily July temperatures. When Marr and Hebda visited Ust Nera daily temperatures in late July were reaching over 30C , the warmest ever noted according to local residents and perhaps an indication of climate change underway. In 2020 this part of Siberia experienced and unprecedented heat wave in the spring reaching temperatures into the upper 20C range and even above 30C, a further indication that major climate shifts are underway.