As a result of its broken relief, drainage patterns, climatic differences, and sharply defined altitudinal zoning of vegetation, Azerbaijan is characterized by a wide variety of landscapes. More than two-fifths of its territory is taken up by lowlands, about half lies at 1,300 to 4,900 feet (400 to 1,500 metres), and areas above 4,900 feet occupy a little more than one-tenth of the total area.
The highest peaks are Bazardyuzyu (Bazardüzü; 14,652 feet [4,466 metres]), Shakhdag, and Tufan, all part of the Greater Caucasus range, the crest of which forms part of Azerbaijan’s northern boundary. Magnificent spurs and ridges, cut into by the deep gorges of mountain streams, make this part of Azerbaijan a region of great natural beauty. At the same time, it lies within a region characterized by a high degree of seismic activity.
The spurs of the Lesser Caucasus, in southwestern Azerbaijan, form the second important mountain system, which includes the Shakhdag, Murovdag, and Zangezur ranges, their summits rising to nearly 13,000 feet, and also the Karabakh Upland. The large and scenic Lake Geygyol lies at an altitude of 5,138 feet.
The southeastern part of Azerbaijan is bordered by the Talish (Talysh) Mountains, consisting of three longitudinal ranges, with Mount Kyumyurkyoy as the highest peak (8,176 feet), and the Länkäran Lowland, along the Caspian coast. This lowland, an extension of the Kura-Aras Lowland, reaches the Iranian border near Astara.
The Kura-Aras Lowland is named for the main river, the Kura (Kür), and its tributary the Aras (Araz). The Shirvan, Milskaya, and Mugan plains are part of this lowland and have similar soils and climate. Gray soils and saline solonchaks (aridisols) and, in higher regions, gray alkaline solonetz and chestnut soils (mollisols) prevail.
A well-developed network of canals between the Kura and Aras rivers makes it possible to irrigate a major part of the lowland. The Upper Karabakh Canal, 107 miles (172 kilometres) long, provides a vital link between the Aras River and the Mingäçevir Reservoir on the Kura River. The reservoir has a surface area of 234 square miles and a maximum depth of 246 feet. The Upper Karabakh Canal alone irrigates more than 250,000 acres (100,000 hectares) of fertile land and in addition supplies the Aras River with water during dry summer periods. The Upper Shirvan Canal, the second most important canal, is 76 miles in length and also irrigates about 250,000 acres.
The dry subtropical climate of central and eastern Azerbaijan is characterized by a mild winter and a long (four to five months) and very hot summer, with temperatures averaging about 81° F (27° C) and maximum temperatures reaching 109° F (43° C).
Southeastern Azerbaijan is characterized by a humid subtropical climate with the highest precipitation in the country, some 47 to 55 inches (1,200 to 1,400 millimetres) a year, most of it falling in the cold months.
A dry continental climate, with a cold winter and a dry, hot summer, prevails in Naxçıvan at altitudes of 2,300 to 3,300 feet. Moderately warm, dry, or humid types of climate are to be found in other parts of Azerbaijan. The mountain forest zone has a moderately cold climate, while an upland tundra climate characterizes elevations of 10,000 feet and above. Frosts and heavy snowfalls make the passes at such altitudes inaccessible for three or four months of the year.
Plant and animal life
Natural vegetation zones vary according to altitude. Steppe and semidesert conditions prevail in the lowlands and the foothills of the mountain regions. The slopes of the mountains are covered with beech, oak, and pine forests. Higher up there is a zone of alpine meadows. The Länkäran region of southern Azerbaijan has evergreen vegetation and thick beech and oak forests.
In the lowlands the animal life includes gazelles, jackals, and hyenas as well as reptile and rodent species. The mountain regions are inhabited by Caucasian deer, roe deer, wild boar, brown bear, lynx, European bison (wisent), chamois, and leopard, though the latter is rare. Mild winters draw many birds to the Caspian coast, and nature reserves provide a resting home for flamingos, swans, pelicans, herons, egrets, sandpipers, and partridges.