Tierra del Fuego
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Physical geography of the continents and oceans
SOUTH AMERICA: MOUNTAINOUS WEST (ANDES)
See also photos of Tierra del Fuego nature (with geographic and biological photo captions) from Natural Landscapes of the World:
Geographic Location. Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago of dozens of large and small islands located off the southern coast of South America between 53 and 55°S, belonging to Chile and Argentina (see the map of the physical and geographic zoning of South America with links to photographs of the region’s nature). The islands are separated from the mainland and one from the other by narrow, winding straits. The largest eastern island is called Tierra del Fuego, or Big Island.
Geological structure and relief. Geologically and geomorphologically, the archipelago serves as an extension of the Andes and the Patagonian Plateau. The coasts of the western islands are rocky and deeply rugged with fjords, the eastern islands are flat and weakly dissected.
The entire western part of the archipelago is occupied by mountains up to 2,400 m high. An important role in the relief belongs to ancient and modern glacial forms in the form of piles of boulders, trough valleys, “ram’s foreheads” and moraine pond lakes. Mountain ranges dissected by glaciers rise from the ocean itself, narrow winding fiords cut into their slopes. The eastern part of the largest island is occupied by a vast plain.
Climatic conditions. Tierra del Fuego’s climate is very humid, except in the far east. The archipelago is under the constant influence of sharp and humid southwestern winds. In the west, rainfall is up to 3,000 mm per year, with drizzle predominating, occurring 300-330 days per year. In the east, precipitation decreases sharply.
Temperatures are low throughout the year, and fluctuations by season are insignificant. We can say that the Tierra del Fuego archipelago is close to the tundra in summer temperatures and to the subtropics in winter.
The climatic conditions of Tierra del Fuego are favorable for the development of glaciation. The snow edge in the west is 500 m high, and glaciers drop directly into the ocean, forming icebergs. Mountain ranges are covered with ice, and only some sharp peaks rise above it.
Vegetation. In a narrow coastal strip, mainly in the western part of the archipelago, forests of evergreen and deciduous species are spread. Particularly characteristic are southern beeches, Canelo (Drimys winteri) of vintners with white fragrant flowers, and some conifers. The upper boundary of the forest vegetation and the snowy boundary almost close to each other.
In some places, above 500 m, and sometimes near the sea (in the east), the forests are replaced by sparse subantarctic mountain meadows without flowering plants and by peat bogs. In areas with permanent strong winds, groups of rare and low curved trees and bushes with “flag-shaped” crowns sloping in the direction of the prevailing winds are scattered.
Animal world. The animal world of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago and the southern Andes is about the same and quite peculiar. Along with guanaco, the blue fox, fox-like, or Magellanic dog, and many rodents are widespread there. Endemic, living under the ground rodent tukotuko is characteristic. Birds such as parrots and hummingbirds are numerous.
Population and environmental problems. Of the domestic animals, sheep are the most characteristic. Sheep breeding is the main occupation of the population.
Tierra del Fuego National Park is located on the island of Tierra del Fuego, where vegetation is represented by low-growing forests of southern beech trees with shrubby undergrowth. The park is home to guanacos and many different birds.
In 1937, in the west of Argentina’s Santa Cruz province in the Patagonian Andes, “Los Glaciares” National Park was created with an area of about 446 thousand hectares. 260 thousand hectares are occupied by glaciers, 47 tongues of which descend into the valleys. The pearl of the park is Lake Lago Argentino (160 km in length), the southern part of which is underlain by the Perito Moreno glacier. In summer the blocks of ice break away from the ice wall, which is 5 kilometers wide and 60 meters high, and fall into the lake with a roar. In 1981, the park was included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
See also photos of Tierra del Fuego nature (with geographic and biological photo captions) from Natural Landscapes of the World:
To see photos of nature of different continents and countries of the world (with geographical and biological meaningful captions to photos) you can in the sections: Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, Central and South America, Australia and New Zealand and Antarctica of the section “Natural World Landscapes” of our website.
You can get acquainted with nature descriptions of Russia and former USSR countries in ” Physical geography of Russia and USSR ” of our site.
Tierra del Fuego – misnomer and other facts about the archipelago: geographical position. climate, inhabitants
Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago at the southern tip of South America, which is located at the very edge of the world. Adventurers and those who plan to follow in the footsteps of famous travelers: the navigator Fernand Magellan, the writer Bruce Chatwin or the scientist Charles Darwin come here.
Epic mountain scenery, pristine nature, fascinating history and outdoor activities – from hiking and skiing to sailing and dog sledding – await the traveler. These and other facts about the archipelago are in the 24SMI story.
Difficulties of translation
It is believed that the archipelago owes its name to the Portuguese navigator Fernand Magellan. When in 1520 off the coast of South America appeared “Trinidad”, the flagship of Magellan’s expedition, the natives noticed the strangers and began to warn each other of the danger, lighting signal fires on the rocks.
Seeing the smoke from the fires, Magellan named the land Tierra del Fuego, which meant “land of fire.” Later geographers simplified the inscription and began to write the name of the archipelago as Tierra del Fuego. European travelers learned about the fact that fires were burning on the shore, and not something else, from the natives themselves.
In 1830, British naval officer Robert Fitzroy took four natives to Tierra del Fuego to meet the king. Only three of them survived the journey there and back safely. Charles Darwin, who accompanied the natives back to their homeland, believed that the natives of the archipelago were the missing link between man and the apes.
Subsequent expeditions sent missionaries and explorers from Europe to the islands of Tierra del Fuego. They cultivated sheep farming and explored the territory. In 1880 they discovered gold, initiating a local gold rush.
Tierra del Fuego Island / Photo: Flickr.com
Tierra del Fuego volcanoes
The southernmost volcano in South America, Fueguino, is located on Cook Island, which is part of Tierra del Fuego. So yes, there is a volcano, but Magellan did not know that.
Fueguino is a volcanic field. It is a section of the earth’s crust on which volcanic cinder cones rise. Periodically, the field erupts in lava flows and forms new cones. Around them, the soil becomes the products of the eruption.
Fueguino extends as far as Londonderry Island. The volcanic cones are 100-150 meters high. One of them even has its own crater lake.
The earliest mention of volcanic field eruptions is in Aboriginal myths. The legends tell of a world fire that burned everything in the world. Scientists who have studied the deposits speak of periods of volcanic activity in 1712, 1820 and 1926.
In Spanish fuego means “fire,” Tierra del Fuego means “land of fire.” Azerbaijan is the “Land of Fires”, hence the namesake of the Land of Fire. It is believed that the name of the ancient Iranian kingdom of Atropatena (present-day Azerbaijan) is translated from Old Iranian as “protected by holy fire” or “land of holy fire. Over time, the pronunciation of the name of the kingdom changed, becoming Aturpatakan, then Adharbadhagan, Azarbaijan.
There are no fire volcanoes in Azerbaijan, only mud volcanoes. Researchers believe that the name of the territory is associated with the natural burning of oil fields, not with volcanic activity.
Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago consisting of one main island and a group of smaller ones. The main island is Isla Grande, with an area of 48,100 square kilometers. Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego is owned by two countries, Chile and Argentina. The first controls the western part of the island, while the second controls the eastern part. Chile also owns the islands lying north of 56° south latitude. Argentina got the island of Estados, lying in the east of the archipelago.
It is separated from mainland South America by the Strait of Magellan. From the Antarctic side it is washed by the Strait of Drake. To the south, it is washed by the Beagle Strait.
- Water area: Pacific and Atlantic Oceans;
- Archipelago area: 73,753 square kilometers;
- coordinates on the map: 54°S 70°W;
- Number of islands: up to 40,000;
- Population: 251,000
Geology of the archipelago
In the Jurassic Period, the southern tip of the continent was shaken by volcanic eruptions associated with the break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana. Mountains were formed. Two factors influenced them: strong and intense westerly winds, which grinded the coast with ocean waves, and subsequent glaciation.
Pleistocene glaciers modified the cliffs in the northern part of the archipelago and created beaches of coarse sand and fine gravel. For example, Beagle Strait, an ocean-flooded glacial valley 5 km wide and 100 to 450 m deep. Lakes Fagnano and Almirantazgo Fjord lie in depressions cut into the rock by the ice sheet.
Along the southern shore of the archipelago, raised beaches were formed in the Holocene. The water level was constantly changing. That is why today they are elevated above the sea level.
Royal Penguin colony / Photo: Flickr.com
Tierra del Fuego’s climate belt is sub-polar oceanic, with short, cool summers and long, wet, mild winters. Climatologists distinguish three climatic types here:
- steppe in the Argentine part of Tierra del Fuego;
- humid temperate in Rio Chico, Ushuaia;
- Tundra in the Rio Grande.
In the southern part of the island, the climate is oceanic. In the northern part, the climate is steppe.
The continental climate has almost no effect on the archipelago, but the Andean Cordilleras create a climate gradient in the west-east and north-south direction. The average annual temperature is 5-6 °C and the average annual rainfall is 340 mm/year.
On the main island of the archipelago are the Cordilleras of Darwin. It is a compact mountain range covered by glaciers. It lies in the southwestern part of the Isla Grande on the territory of Chile. It is part of the Andean Cordilleras. The height of the peaks is about 2,000 m. Mount Darwin is the highest in the mountain range, with a height of 2,488 m.
Mount Olivia is one of the most beautiful mountains. Its height is 1326 m. The mountain looks like a pile of individual rocks, making it very photogenic. There are two glaciers that run down the eastern side of the mountain. There are six official routes to the summit.
Glaciers of Tierra del Fuego
Glaciers cover almost all the mountains of the archipelago. But most of them are inaccessible by land. To see the glaciers, tourists go on a sea cruise for 3-4 days. Around the coast of Patagonia, 3-4 cruise ships with a capacity of up to 200 passengers ply year-round.
Along the Strait of Magellan is the most beautiful section, called Glacier Alley. Moving north, the ship will come to fjords similar to those in Norway in terms of topography and spectacle.
The most famous and popular glacier lies on the mainland in Argentina, not in Tierra del Fuego. It is the Perito-Moreno Glacier. It is an ice plateau 5 km wide and 250 square km in area. The bluish-colored glacier moves toward Lake Lago Argentino at a rate of 2 meters per day.
The glaciers break off and fall noisily into the water. Reaching the opposite shore, they form an ice dam, raising the water level to a height of 30 meters. The dam forms irregularly. Sometimes every year, and sometimes once every 5-10 years. Perito Moreno is the third largest freshwater glacier in the world.
Perito Moreno Glacier / Photo: Flickr.com
Tierra del Fuego’s natural areas are mixed forests and highlands. Coniferous trees and sparse subarctic plants grow here. Above 500 m lie mountain meadows and peatlands. Stunted trees and bushes grow there.
Cape Horn and the route across two oceans
Sailors XVI-XVII centuries gave the cape a number of colorful names: “Old Ogre”, “Devil’s Mouth”, “Graveyard of Ships”. This is the southernmost point of the archipelago. It rains or snows 300 days a year here. The wind, hitting the narrow strait, intensifies. As a result, the cape is constantly stormy. Frequent fogs reduce visibility and cause shipwrecks.
Sailors believed that albatrosses circling over the cape were the souls of dead sailors. For some reason they could not leave Cape Horn after they died.
To commemorate the dead sailors, a monument in the shape of a flying albatross was erected on top of the cape in 1992. It was sponsored by the Brotherhood of Captains, founded in 1987.
It took up to three weeks for ships to circle the cape. Passing without damage was a sign of the crew’s skill. After the first success the sailors wore a copper earring, after the second they exchanged it for a silver one, and after the third they received the right to change the ornament for a gold one. This tradition has survived to this day and is maintained by the crews of local vessels.
According to one version of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, Captain Van der Decken was wrecked off Cape Horn. But the man swore that he would win the fight with nature, and since then the crew of the legendary ship is doomed to sail the ocean forever, repeating his attempt to sail around the cape until the second coming of Jesus Christ to the Earth.
Tierra del Fuego National Park
This is the southernmost national park on the planet. It was created in 1960. It covers an area of 630 sq. km. Visitors are allowed only in the southern parts of the park, to protect wildlife from human contact.
The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The geography of the park includes:
The best time to visit are the months of December to February. Summer is the period of greatest activity of animals and birds. In winter, tourists stay to ski and admire the rocks. Surprisingly, winter travel is preferred by divers. At this time of year, the water is clear and calm.
Tierra del Fuego National Park / Photo: Flickr.com
The park operates a railroad that transports tourists by steam train with a couple of carriages. The cost is $30 per ride. Also open is the End of the World Museum. It is dedicated to the history of Tierra del Fuego, explorers and celebrities associated with the archipelago.
The birds of the national park come in all sizes:
- The Magellanic royal woodpecker is a bird with a bright red head and black plumage. It is 40-45 cm long.
- The non-flying steamer duck is famous for the characteristic movement of its legs, similar to the movement of the wheel of an ancient steamer. The bird weighs 4-5 kg. Usually, ducks are not aggressive, but this is not the case with the inhabitants of South America. When approaching a tourist, the bird will attack. Therefore, it is not recommended to get close.
- The Fire-Eyed Deacon is a bird of the passerine family with red, “fiery” eyes.
Tierra del Fuego is home to several species of penguins. These include Magellanic penguins, Sub-Arctic penguins, and king penguins.
A total of 90 species of birds have been recorded in the national park.
There are also many interesting animals living here. Some of them are widely known. These are beavers, gray foxes, rabbits. Others are little known.
Guanaco is a llama-like animal of the camel family. Its height at the withers is 90-130 cm. Weight – 115-140 kg. Guanaco was the main hunting object of the local aborigines. Its natural enemies are maned wolves and cougars.
The Southland deer is considered an endangered species. It is a brownish-colored animal with white markings on its sternum. It is 1.4-1.6 m tall and weighs 70-80 kg. The deer is well adapted to mountainous terrain.
The Andean red fox is similar to its common red relative. It feeds on rodents, hares and birds. Interestingly, the local Yagan people domesticated the fox and used it as a hunting animal. This has been preserved in written sources, but in the XXI century this practice has been firmly forgotten. Therefore, domestic hunting foxes on the island tourists will no longer be found.
The North American beaver is a vicious invasive animal that destroys the ecosystem of the national park. People brought beavers purposefully, but did not take into account the rules of interaction of animals in ecosystems. In 1946, 10 beavers arrived in the reserve. The absence of natural predators caused intensive growth of the population. The beavers gnawed up tree roots and built dams. Some parts of the forest became swampy, while others simply dried up. The local trees were incapable of rapid regeneration and adaptation.
There were so many beavers that patches of dry forest became commonplace. The government recognized the problem and suggested that hunters shoot the animals. But in South America beaver fur is not considered valuable. Therefore there were few who were willing. As a result, the fight against beavers continues to this day.
Beaver dam on Lake Fagnano / Photo: Flickr.com
Humans are thought to have settled on Tierra del Fuego about 10,000 years ago. They fished and hunted. The main tribe was the Jagan. They lived off the resources of the sea, wore clothes made of sea lion skins, and ate fish.
After Fernand Magellan discovered Tierra del Fuego in 1520, whalers traveled here for the next 400 years, and it wasn’t until the 1820s that exploration of the archipelago began. Missionaries and settlers arrived. Because of the diseases the Europeans brought with them, the indigenous people became sick and died out.
Between 1883 and 1906, a gold rush began on Tierra del Fuego. People were looking for reclaimed gold in the rivers flowing from the Brunswick Peninsula into the Straits of Magellan. The fever caused the extermination of the Selknap tribe.
The settlers began to raise sheep. This was aided by the climate of the mountainous region. Today, sheep and wool production is the basis of the economic activity of the islanders.
Oil and Industry
In 1945, oil was discovered on Tierra del Fuego. The field belongs to Chile. Drilling platforms are installed in the Strait of Magellan. Pipelines are laid from there to meet the needs of surrounding countries. Logging is done in the forest areas. Fish are caught in the oceans. Seals are hunted and nutria are bred.
There are almost no roads on Tierra del Fuego. Therefore, large settlements are connected by air. For tourists, they organize sea cruises and bus tours. Most cruises to Antarctica begin in Tierra del Fuego.
This is the main settlement and the unspoken capital of Tierra del Fuego, which belongs to Argentina. Its real capital is Buenos Aires. Ushuaia also claims to be the southernmost city in the world.
Ushuaia / Photo: Flickr.com
The first settler, missionary Vasti H. Stirling, began establishing Ushuaia in 1870. In 1884 the settlement became a naval base, and in 1893 it was granted city status. The town’s inhabitants were engaged in sheep breeding and fishing.
Ushuaia is located at an altitude of 6 meters above sea level in the Bay of Ushuaia. This is the only city in the country, which can be reached by crossing the mountain range.
Among the tourist attractions is the prison, which was in operation until 1947. Today it is turned into a museum. There is also the southernmost lighthouse and a historical railroad.
Tierra del Fuego is a place on the edge of the world with not the most hospitable weather, but stunning scenery. Something similar to the territories of the Far North: weather and wild landscapes. But there is a difference: the lack of “construction sites of the century” and megalopolises with a long history. Therefore, despite the fact that Tierra del Fuego is reflected in the works of Jules Verne and Thomas Mayne Reid, only very adventurous travelers go on a long journey.