NASA

Strange spikes over Siberia puzzle astronauts

Strange spiky shapes slash across the Kulundra Steppe of Siberia in an astronaut photograph snapped from the International Space Station in June 2014. From left to right, this image covers about 185 miles (300 kilometers) of ground.

Strange spiky shapes slash across the Kulundra Steppe of Siberia in an astronaut photograph snapped from the International Space Station in June 2014. From left to right, this image covers about 185 miles (300 kilometers) of ground.  (SS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 40 crew.)

Houston, we have a question: What are these weird spiky shapes we're seeing as we fly over Siberia?

That's what astronauts were asking this June, when the sight of strange, dark-green features running along Siberia's Kulunda Steppe left them stumped, according to NASA's Earth Observatory. The curving features streak across the plain near the Ob River, and can be seen from the International Space Station (ISS) when it flies over the Northern Hemisphere's 52nd parallel, the highest latitude of its orbit.

Fortunately for the ISS astronauts' burning curiosity, researchers at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston had answers. The spikes are a side effect of the geology of the region: Folded surface rocks (shaped by tectonic forces) dip lower than the surrounding land, creating long, linear valleys filled with pine forests. From space, the pines appear as a darker shade of green than the surrounding agricultural fields, according to the Earth Observatory.

The spikes also appear in a winter scene snapped by an ISS astronaut more than a decade ago, in 2003. In that image, snow covers the fields surrounding the folds, doubly highlighting the pine forests within. [Photos: The 10 Strangest Places on Earth]

The Siberian spikes aren't the only odd feature of the Kulunda Steppe. The landscape is dotted with saltwater lakes, including Gorkoye Lake, which can be seen within the dark-green forest on the left side of this image. According to the region's tourism department, people visit the lake's waters, as well as the rich mud at the lake's bottom, for healing purposes.

Despite getting little water from rain, the Kulunda Steppe is an agricultural center of Russia and a major source of wheat. In 2013, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research gave German researchers $4.2 million to fund a sustainable farming project in the region. According to a statement from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, many of the farmers of the Kulunda Steppe are ethnic Germans.

Poor agricultural practices in the mid-20th century led to soil erosion on the Steppe. To save Russia's breadbasket, researchers are now working on sustainable farming strategies, including rotating crops and ditching the plow.