What is a Tundra?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A tundra is a biome characterized by cold weather and low growing plants and shrubs. The term “biome” is used to refer to a specific type of environment which is characterized by certain weather conditions, supporting particular plants and animals. There are three types of tundra which can be found on Earth: arctic, antarctic, and alpine. All of these environments share some basic characteristics, although they are unique enough to be placed in different categories.

Some mosses can grow in the tundra.
Some mosses can grow in the tundra.

All forms of tundra are distinctive because they are quite cold, and they also share a layer of permanently frozen subsoil. Because of the freezing conditions, the biome cannot support many plants, with the bulk of flora consisting of lichen, mosses, and low lying grasses. Stunted trees and shrubs may also grow in the tundra. When the weather warms, the land becomes boggy, because water cannot drain away, since the frozen subsoil is in the way.

The tundra supports some animals, such as wolves.
The tundra supports some animals, such as wolves.

The tundra also supports some animals. Caribou, reindeer, and lemmings all call it home, along with foxes, wolves, and birds of prey. The relationships between these animals can get very complex, especially in severe winters, as they rely on each other for a stable existence. These animals, in turn, also support human life. Several native peoples have historically lived in the biome, often migrating to take advantage of migratory animal species.

Northern Alaska is home to large areas of tundra.
Northern Alaska is home to large areas of tundra.

The arctic tundra covers a large part of the Earth's surface, between the ice cap and the treeline of arctic regions of the world. Alaska, Russia, and Northern Canada all have large expanses, along with parts of Scandinavia. Native people in this area referred to the area as tundar, meaning “flat topped hill,” a reference to the gentle topography which characterizes the land. Some parts are classified as parks and preserves, with their host nations working to preserve the unique conditions of this cold and sometimes forbidding environment.

Antarctic tundra is more barren, as Antarctica is extremely cold and it has very harsh winters. This type supports more lichen and moss, and no large animals. It also tends to be very rocky and dry. Alpine tundra is a form that can be found at extremely high elevations. The high elevation prevents large trees from growing, promoting the growth of dwarf shrubs, grasses, and lichen. This biome is also cold and icy, and it can be found in many parts of the world that have high mountain ranges.

Lichen can grow on Antarctic tundra.
Lichen can grow on Antarctic tundra.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon330271

What are the weather types in the tundra?

anon143369

it's not like we can control whether or not we have tundra.

anon126851

where is the tundra?

anon82512

why do we need a tundra?

nocompliment

a tundra is basically an arctic area, sort of.

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