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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Noun

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

American buffalo
Noun

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

anchor
Verb

to hold firmly in place.

arid
Adjective

dry.

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.

Noun

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

conquer
Verb

to overcome an enemy or obstacle.

Noun

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

convert
Verb

to change from one thing to another.

Cossack
Noun

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

Noun

agricultural produce.

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.

Noun

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

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.

Noun

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

horseman
Noun

person who is skilled in riding and managing horses.

ideal
Adjective

perfect.

manned
Adjective

carrying one or more people.

Noun

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

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.

Noun

flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

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.

Noun

division of a country larger than a town or county.

Noun

liquid precipitation.

Noun

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

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.

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.

Noun

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

tall grass
Noun

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

temperate
Adjective

moderate.

Noun

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

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.

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).

unmanned
Adjective

lacking the physical presence of a person.

vegetation
Noun

all the plant life of a specific place.