The Ural Mountains 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 river Ural and northwestern Kazakhstan.The mountain range forms part of the conventional boundary between the regions 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 Ural Mountains are one of the richest mineral regions in the world, containing more than 1,000 different types of valuable minerals.
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. The region is one of the largest producers of metallurgy and heavy industry production in the country.
The landscapes of the Urals vary with both latitude and longitude and are dominated by forests and steppes. The southern area of the Mughalzhar Hills is a semidesert. Steppes lie mostly in the southern and especially south-eastern Urals. Meadow steppes have developed on the lower parts of mountain slopes and are covered with zigzag and mountain clovers, Serratula gmelinii, dropwort, meadow-grass and Bromus inermis, reaching the height of 60–80 cm. Much of the land is cultivated. To the south, the meadow steppes become more sparse, dry and low. The steep gravelly slopes of the mountains and hills of the eastern slopes of the Southern Urals are mostly covered with rocky steppes. River valleys contain willow, poplar and caragana shrubs.
Forest landscapes of the Urals are diverse, especially in the southern part. The western areas are dominated by dark coniferous taiga forests which change to mixed and deciduous forests in the south. The eastern mountain slopes have light coniferous taiga forests. The Northern Urals are dominated by conifers, namely Siberian fir, Siberian pine, Scots pine, Siberian spruce, Norway spruce and Siberian larch, as well as by silver and downy birches. The forests are much sparser in the Polar Urals. Whereas in other parts of the Ural Mountains they grow up to an altitude of 1000 m, in the Polar Urals the tree line is at 250–400 m. The low polar forests are mixed with swamps, lichens, bogs and shrubs. Dwarf birch, mosses and berries (blueberry, cloudberry, black crowberry, etc.) are abundant. The forests of the Southern Urals are the most diverse in composition: here, together with coniferous forests are also abundant broadleaf tree species such as English oak, Norway maple and elm. The Virgin Komi Forests in the northern Urals are recognized as a World Heritage site.
The Ural forests are inhabited by animals typical of Siberia, such as elk, brown bear, fox, wolf, wolverine, lynx, squirrel, reindeer 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.
The steppes of the Southern Urals are dominated by hares and rodents such as hamsters, 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.
The continuous and intensive economic development of the last centuries has affected the fauna, and wildlife is much diminished around all industrial centers. During World War II, hundreds of factories were evacuated from Western Russia before the German occupation, flooding the Urals with industry. The conservation measures include establishing national wildlife parks. There are nine strict nature reserves in the Urals: the Ilmen, the oldest one, mineralogical reserve founded in 1920 in Chelyabinsk Oblast, Pechora-Ilych in the Komi Republic, Bashkir and its former branch Shulgan-Tash in Bashkortostan, Visim in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Southern Ural in Bashkortostan, Basegi in Perm Krai, Vishera in Perm Krai and Denezhkin Kamen in Sverdlovsk Oblast.
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. Its plants went into operation in 1948 and, for the first ten years, dumped unfiltered radioactive waste into the river Techa and Lake Karachay. 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. 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). 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. The 1957 accident expelled 20 million curies of radioactive material, 90% of which settled into the land immediately around the facility. Although some reactors of Mayak were shut down in 1987 and 1990, the facility keeps producing plutonium.