• A steppe is a dry, grassy plain. Steppes occur in temperate climates, which lie between the tropics and polar regions. Temperate regions have distinct seasonal temperature changes, with cold winters and warm summers.

    Steppes are semi-arid, meaning they receive 25 to 50 centimeters (10-20 inches) of rain each year. This is enough rain to support short grasses, but not enough for tall grasses or trees to grow. Many kinds of grasses grow on steppes, but few grow taller than half a meter (20 inches).

    Eurasian Steppe

    The largest temperate grassland in the world is the Eurasian steppe, extending from Hungary to China. It reaches almost one-fifth of the way around the Earth. The Eurasian steppe is so well-known, the area is sometimes referred to as just The Steppe.

    The Eurasian steppe has historically been one of the most important routes for travel and trade. The flat expanse provides an ideal route between Asia and Europe. Caravans of horses, donkeys, and camels have traveled the Eurasian steppe for thousands of years. The most famous trade route on the Eurasian steppe is the Silk Road, connecting China, India, and Europe. The Silk Road was established around 200 BCE, and many Silk Road trade routes are still in use today.

    During the 13th century, Mongolian leader Genghis Khan conquered almost the entire Eurasian steppe. With expert horsemen, Khan conquered territory from his home in what is now Mongolia, through China, Central Asia, and the land around the Caspian Sea.

    The equestrian culture that was so important to Genghis Khan is still important for most cultures native to the Eurasian steppe. From the Mongolian tradition in the east to the Cossack traditions of western Russia, these cultures have relied on horses for travel, trade, and conquest on the vast steppe. To this day, many festivals and community activities focus on horseback riding.

    Other Steppes

    The dry, shortgrass prairie of North Americas Great Plains is also a steppe. The shortgrass prairie lies on the western edge of the Great Plains, in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains. It extends from the U.S. state of Texas in the south to the province of Saskatchewan, Canada, in the north.

    Many of the worlds steppes have been converted to cropland and pasture. Short grasses that grow naturally on steppes provide grazing for cattle, goats, horses, camels, and sheep. Sometimes steppes are overgrazed, which occurs when there are more animals than the land can support.

    When the short grasses of the steppe are plowed under for agriculture, the soil can erode very quickly. Important nutrients anchored in the soil by grasses are simply blown or washed away. Agricultural development can also degrade the soil with fertilizer and other chemicals. This is called overcultivation.

    Overcultivation can make grasslands look like deserts. The soil cannot retain enough water or nutrients for vegetation to grow. True deserts, however, receive less rainfall (less than 25 centimeters per year) than steppes.

    These grasses are a little taller than the short grasses that dominate most steppe ecosystems.

    Steppe Up to Space
    The wide, open space of the Eurasian steppe is an ideal spot for a spaceport. (Spacecraft need a lot of room to take off and land safely.) Russia began operating the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakhstan steppe in 1955. It is still successfully launching manned and unmanned spacecraft today.

    Where Fewer Buffalo Roam
    The American bison (also called the American buffalo) roams the North American steppe. During the 1800s, the bison population dropped from more than 60 million to fewer than 2,000, mostly due to hunting by settlers from the East Coast. Conservation efforts have helped bring the bison population back up to more than 350,000 today.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    adapt Verb

    to adjust to new surroundings or a new situation.

    agricultural development Noun

    modern farming methods that include mechanical, chemical, engineering and technological methods. Also called industrial agriculture.

    agriculture Noun

    the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

    Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture
    American buffalo Noun

    wild ruminant native to the North American prairie. Technically called bison.

    anchor Verb

    to hold firmly in place.

    arid Adjective


    Baikonur Cosmodrome Noun

    (1955) Russian spaceport in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

    bison Noun

    large mammal native to North America. Also called American buffalo.

    caravan Noun

    group of people who travel together for safety and companionship through difficult territory.

    climate Noun

    all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    conquer Verb

    to overcome an enemy or obstacle.

    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    convert Verb

    to change from one thing to another.

    Cossack Noun

    people and culture native to western Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.

    crop Noun

    agricultural produce.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crop
    culture Noun

    learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

    degrade Verb

    to lower the quality of something.

    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    distinct Adjective

    unique or identifiable.

    equestrian Adjective

    having to do with horses.

    erode Verb

    to wear away.

    establish Verb

    to form or officially organize.

    Eurasian steppe Noun

    dry, flat grassland stretching from Asia to Eastern Europe.

    expanse Noun

    large area.

    extend Verb

    to enlarge or continue.

    fertilizer Noun

    nutrient-rich chemical substance (natural or manmade) applied to soil to encourage plant growth.

    Genghis Khan Noun

    (1162-1227) founder of the Mongol empire.

    grass Noun

    type of plant with narrow leaves.

    grassland Noun

    ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

    graze Verb

    to feed on grass, usually over a wide pasture.

    Great Plains Noun

    grassland region of North America, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.

    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    horseman Noun

    person who is skilled in riding and managing horses.

    ideal Adjective


    manned Adjective

    carrying one or more people.

    nutrient Noun

    substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient
    overcultivation Noun

    process of growing too many crops in too short a time period on one area of land.

    overgrazing Noun

    process of too many animals feeding on one area of pasture or grassland.

    pasture Noun

    type of agricultural land used for grazing livestock.

    plain Noun

    flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plain
    plow noun, verb

    tool used for cutting, lifting, and turning the soil in preparation for planting.

    polar Adjective

    having to do with the North and/or South Pole.

    province Noun

    division of a country larger than a town or county.

    Encyclopedic Entry: province
    rain Noun

    liquid precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: rain
    rain shadow Noun

    dry land on the side of a mountain facing away from prevailing winds.

    Encyclopedic Entry: rain shadow
    retain Verb

    to keep.

    route Noun

    path or way.

    seasonal Adjective

    likely to change with the seasons.

    shortgrass prairie Noun

    large, flat region of land covered by grasses less than a meter (3 feet) tall.

    Silk Road Noun

    ancient trade route through Central Asia linking China and the Mediterranean Sea.

    soil Noun

    top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

    spacecraft Noun

    vehicle designed for travel outside Earth's atmosphere.

    spaceport Noun

    facility for launching vehicles or capsules into space.

    steppe Noun

    dry, flat grassland with no trees and a cool climate.

    Encyclopedic Entry: steppe
    tall grass Noun

    type of grass that stands an average of 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall, such as switchgrass.

    temperate Adjective


    temperature Noun

    degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

    Encyclopedic Entry: temperature
    territory Noun

    land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.

    trade Noun

    buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.

    trade route Noun

    path followed by merchants or explorers to exchange goods and services.

    travel Noun

    movement from one place to another.

    tropics Plural Noun

    region generally located between the Tropic of Cancer (23 1/2 degrees north of the Equator) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23 1/2 degrees south of the Equator).

    Encyclopedic Entry: tropics
    unmanned Adjective

    lacking the physical presence of a person.

    vegetation Noun

    all the plant life of a specific place.