The Mountains of Central Asia hotspot consists of two of Asia’s major mountain ranges, the Pamir and the Tien Shan. Politically, the hotspot’s 860,000 square kilometers include southern Kazakhstan, most of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, eastern Uzbekistan, western China, northeastern Afghanistan, and a small part of Turkmenistan. The hotspot has many mountains above 6,500 meters in elevation, as well as major desert basins, the largest of which is the Fergana Valley. The hotspot holds a large number of endemic plant species, but water stress and civil conflict have placed much of its unique biodiversity under serious threat.
The Pamir mountain range, which includes the Eastern Pamir, Western Pamir and Pamir-Alai Mountains, was known to early Persians as the “roof of the world.” The Eastern Pamir are plateau-like with limited altitudinal variation, while the Western Pamir are characterized by sharp ridges, steep slopes and deep valleys and gorges. The hotspot’s highest peak is Kongur, which rises to 7,719 meters in the Chinese Pamir; four other peaks are above 7,000 meters. The 300-km-long, 150-km-wide Fergana valley separates the Pamir from the Tien Shan Mountains, a complex series of ranges extending for 2,500 kilometers from west to east. The hotspot also holds more than 20,000 glaciers, covering around 18,000 km².
The climate in the Mountains of Central Asia is generally arid. Precipitation falls mainly in winter and spring and varies from more than 1,500 millimeters in the Gissar Range in the west of the hotspot to less than 100 millimeters in the Eastern Pamir.
The predominant vegetation types in the hotspot are desert, semi-desert and steppe on all the lower slopes and foothills and in some of the outlying ranges and major basins. Patches of riverine woodland survive in the Ili valley and a few other places. At higher altitudes, steppe communities, dominated by various species of grasses and herbs occur, while shrub communities are widespread in the lower steppe zone. Spruce forests, the only coniferous forest type in the hotspot, occur on the moist northern slopes of the Tien Shan, while open juniper or archa forest occurs widely between 900 and 2,800 meters. Subalpine and alpine meadows occur in the western part of the mountains, from 2,000 to 4,000 meters and above. At the very highest and coldest elevations, there is limited vegetation cover and diversity, with cushion plants, snow-patch plants and tundra-like vegetation.
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