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Lena River

The Lena is one of the longest rivers in the world, and at 4,400 km, the longest river in the Russian Federation. At its mouth into the Laptev Sea in northern Siberia, the river forms a huge delta, 32,000 square km, which is the largest Arctic delta, and the most extensive protected wilderness area in Russia. The river rises in the western slopes of the Baikal Range 12 km west of Lake Baikal, and is fed by more than 2,500 tributaries on its long journey north. The total area of the river basin is 2,490,000 square km.

The largest western tributaries are the Aldan (2,273 km), Vitim (1,837 km), Olekma (1,436 km) rivers; its eastern tributaries are the Vilui (2,650 km), Linde (804 km), and Nyuja (798 km). Rain and groundwater in the southern basin and snow in the northern basin are the main inputs to the river up to Vitim. As the river approaches the Arctic the role of groundwater in the river supply becomes less significant. The river levels are characterized by a high spring flood, summer and autumn rain freshets, and winter low water. Average annual discharge of the Lena river to the Laptev Sea is about 540 km3, and annually the Lena brings about 12 million tons of alluvia and 41 million tons of dissolved substances into the Laptev Sea.

The Lena river is an important waterway and navigable for almost all its length beginning with the village of Kachuga 4,125 km from its mouth. Its width reaches up to 250 m here, however there are 201 shoals between Kachuga and Ust-Kut, the main river port in the Upper Lena, thus navigation is limited and services are regular only between Ust-Kut and Yakutsk. The port of Tiksi on the Arctic Ocean is connected to the Upper Lena rail network via the station at Osetrovo, another Lena river port. Yakutsk, Olekminsk, Lensk, Kirensk, and Osetrovo are the biggest ports on the navigable river section.

The vast Lena delta consists of 150 branches; the largest channels (from west to east) are Oleneksky (208 km long), Tumatsky (149 km), Trofimovsky (134 km) which carries up to 70 percent of the river water, and Bykovsky (106 km), the most important channel for navigation which connects the river with Tiksi bay (Tiksi sea port).

Freeze-up in the Upper Lena begins in the middle of October, and in early November in the Lower Lena. Autumn drifting of the ice lasts up to 20 days; the greatest ice thickness (up to 3 m) is in the north (downstream); in the upper Lena it reaches 50 cm. Spring drifting of the ice in the Upper Lena begins in late April and by the end of the first ten days of June the Lena river waters are flowing to the Laptev Sea. The average number of ice-free days is about 130. The spring ice break-up is accompanied by ice jams and a sudden rise in water levels. The most destructive flood (over 19 m water level rise) on the Lena river took place in May 2001 when a part of the town of Lensk was washed away, and Kirensk, Yakutsk, and about 20 villages were inundated. Water level rises for up to 950-1,000 km upstream to the Vilui mouth during ice jams in the river mouth. Daily water rise can be 10 m in some parts of the river during ice jams.

The wet tundra in the delta, which floods each spring, is an important area for nesting and migrating birds, and also supports a rich fish population. There are 92 planktonic species, 57 benthic species, and 38 species of fish in the river. Sturgeon, burbot, chum salmon, Coregonus autumnalis (cisco), Stenodus leucychthis (nelma), and C. albula are the most commercially important fish.

The Lena River and delta are host to many nature reserves, including the Lena Pillars, Beloozersky, Belyanka, Muna, Ust-Viluisky, Lena Delta Nature Reserve, and Ust-Lensky nature reserve. There is also an International Biology Station "Lena-Nordenskiöld" on the Bykovskaya channel. The whole of the Lena Delta area has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The main indigenous people in the Arctic regions of the Lena are the Yakut. Europeans, headed by explorers Ignatiy Huneptek and Matwei Parfent'ev, first appeared on the Lena river in 1625. The Ust-Kutsky fortress, the first populated area on the Lena river, was established by Ivan Galkin, a Cossack chieftain, in 1631. The mouth of the Lena was discovered by Cossacks Il'ya Perfiriev and Ivan Rebrov in 1634. Yakutsk, the biggest town in the Lena basin, was established on 25 September 1632 by Peter Beketov. The Lena and its tributaries were key to the Cossack exploration of East Siberia. Ivan Khaminov, an Irkutsk merchant, founded the Lena steamship line in July 1862, when the first trip from the town of Verkhoyansk up to Yakutsk was made.

Pavel Kazaryan

See also Ice Jams; Laptev Sea; Tiksi; Yakutsk

Further Reading

Are, F.E. & Reimnitz, E. 2000. An overview of the Lena River delta setting: geology, tectonics, geomorphology, and hydrology. Journal of Coastal Research, 16/4: 1083-1093

Gilg, O., Sane, R., Solovieva, D.V., Pozdnyakov, V.I., Sabard, B., Tsanos, D., Zöckler, C., Lappo, E.G., Syroechkovski jr, E.E. and Eichhorn, G. 2000. Birds and Mammals of the Lena Delta Nature Reserve, Siberia. Arctic, 53(2), 118-133

Labutin, Yu.V. & Degtyarev, A.G. 1985. Birds of the Lena delta. In Plant and wildlife of the Lena delta, Yakutsk: 88-110 (in Russian)


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