Focusing On The Conservation of Ecosystems, Habitats & Wildlife


FYA – For Your Awareness

The tundra is a snow covered biome that covers approximately 1/5 of the earth’s surface. It is located in the Arctic Region of 8 countries (United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia) and at elevations above 10,000 feet.

What is a Tundra?

The tundra takes its name from Finnish word “tunturia” which is a treeless plain. Tundra is a polar desert found primarily in high elevations of the polar region encircling the North Pole at 60 degrees latitude. The alpine tundra is found at 10,000 feet in altitude and is located throughout the world, not just the Arctic. The tundra is characterized by long, dry winters, months of total darkness, and frigid weather. The tundra receives less than ten inches of precipitation mainly through snowfall. Landscapes consist of large expanses with few scattered small shrubs, heaths, and sedges. The soil can be soggy, when not frozen and is often acidic. Permafrost covers the ground most of the year.

Animals and birds have adapted to these extremely harsh conditions by hibernating or migrating south during the long winter months. While animals cannot become dormant like plants, some animals (squirrels and bears) hibernate through the winter in burrows or dens by slowing down their breathing and heart rates and living off the stored fat from their bodies during the winter months. Many birds migrate south in the winter to avoid the extreme temperatures. Other animals have adapted by growing extra layers of fat acting as insulation to keep them warm, like seals and walruses or animals such as musk ox that grow additional layers of fur. The snowy owl and ptarmigan grow extra feathers to keep warm during the winter.

Growing seasons are shortened due to lack of sunlight and frozen ground much of the year. The native Arctic populations were nomadic, moving with the migration of the animal herds as a source of food, subsisting on what they could forage in the summer since the growing season was so short.

There are two types of tundras:  Arctic (which is covered in permafrost nearly year round) and Alpine (which is located on mountains at high altitude).

1.  Arctic Tundra

Arctic Tundra extends from the North Pole and south to the Taiga forests (high northern latitude coniferous forests). Growing seasons are extremely short, 50-60 days and the average temperature in winter is -30 degrees with a summer high of 54 degrees. Precipitation, including snow melt is only 6-10 inches. The soil which forms slowly is covered by permafrost. Bogs and ponds are formed by the water saturation of the soil that supports plant life. There are as many as 1,700 kinds of plants in the arctic, some of which include shrubs, sedges, reindeer mosses, liverworts, grasses, 400 varieties of flowers, and lichens. These plants have adapted to the extreme conditions through carrying out photosynthesis at low light and low temperatures.

Similarly, animals such as lemmings, voles, caribou, arctic hares, squirrels, arctic foxes, wolves, and polar bears have adapted to the extreme conditions. Birds include: ravens, snow buntings, falcons, loons, ravens, sandpipers, terns, snow birds, and various species of gulls. Insects include: mosquitoes, flies, moths, grasshoppers, black flies and arctic bumble bees. Fish species found here include: cod, flatfish, salmon, and trout.  Some animals such as bears hibernate in the winter while others have layers of fat serving as insulation. Birds migrate south in winter. Breeding cycles are much shorter to allow for young to reach maturity during summer months. The animal populations fluctuate greatly with migration.

2.  Alpine Tundra

Alpine Tundra is located at altitudes of 10,000 feet with temperatures below freezing. Soils have more drainage than arctic soil, plants that have adapted include: tussock grasses, dwarf trees, small-leafed shrubs, and heaths. Animals found here include: pikas, marmots, mountain goats, sheep, and elk. There are grouse like birds and insects like springtails, beetles, grasshoppers, and butterflies.

It is cold, snowy, and windy for long periods of the year. The landscape is rugged and broken with snow covered peaks, cliffs, and slopes, but can contain flat terrain. It is too windy and cold at altitude to support tree growth and there is less oxygen to support life.

The growing seasons can be up to 180 days, nearly three times longer than the arctic tundra. Threats of radiation, cold, wind, and snow, cause plants to grow close to the ground and to have more root and rhizomes to absorb nutrients from the air and water in order to to survive during the winter. The plants that have adapted to this harsh environment and altitude often have protective stems or leaves to shield from the wind, or some can even covert the sunlight into heat. Plants that take longer to flower are able to survive winters below the surface to produce flowers in the short summer season. Some of these plants include: tussock grasses, dwarf trees, small-leafed shrubs, and heaths.

The harsh conditions of the alpine environment are not at all homogeneous. A variance in the topography can result in the difference between exposed terrains or those covered by snow, just a short distance away. Alpine Tundra often are made up of patches of plants and shrubs scattered across the area including low growing plants in crannies and on slopes, grass and shrubs on the slopes and below the snow, as well as moss, shrubs, and grasses in the bogs.

Where is the Tundra located?

Arctic tundra is located near the North Pole at 60 degrees latitude and is found in Alaska, Russia, Greenland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. This is a harsh climate with frigid temperatures and snow most of the year. Alpine tundra is not limited to the Arctic region and is also found in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia above 10,000 feet.

Why is the Tundra important to protect?

The tundra is important to protect because it acts as a carbon sink by absorbing carbon dioxide from the environment and helping to counteract the detrimental effects of carbon emissions. It is also important to protect as a living laboratory that allows scientists to study the Tundra to discover how plants and animals have been able to adapt to living in this extremely harsh environment. Scientists theorize that impacts of global warming experienced in the tundra will provide a glimpse into the magnitude of the global problems that will be experienced because of climate change in other biomes.

Another reason the tundra is important to protect is that it serves as a habitat for migratory populations, like waterfowl, shorebirds, caribou and several bear species. It is home to endangered animals such as the Arctic Fox, Polar Bear, Grizzly Bear, Caribou, and Musk Ox. Preserving these endangered species and their habitat is vital. Lastly, the tundra provides recreation and adventure opportunities in the national parks and protected areas for dog sledding, hiking, kayaking, and bird watching and the alpine tundra provide opportunities for recreation in the form of mountain climbing, skiing, and exploration. The “Aurora Borealis, known as the Northern Lights can also be viewed in the tundra.

When is the Tundra under threat?

The tundra is threatened by many factors including climate change, oil drilling, exploration, and recreation activities. Of these threats climate change and oil drilling are the most serious threats to the tundra. When overall temperatures increase due to climate change, the snow covered surface begins melting which unleashes a chain reaction of rising ocean levels, loss of habitat, and threatened food supply to the species that depend on the tundra. Equally damaging is the exploration for oil which disrupts the fragile ecosystem of native plants and animals. The ground disturbance can also release the stored carbon as methane gas into the environment which is harmful. Outdoor recreation can similarly destroy the fragile environment and habitat of the plants and animals.

Who is protecting the Tundra?

World Wildlife Federation is preserving areas in the tundra, such as the Bering Sea Ecoregion of Chukotska, covering 284,000 square miles with more than 900 species of plants and 400 species of moss and lichen. It is home to 220 bird species and 30 fresh water fish species.

GreenPeace has a Save the Arctic Campaign and petition to raise money and awareness to preserve the Arctic from destruction.

National Wildlife Refuge Association protects the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area of 19.6 million acres in Alaska which prohibits oil and gas development in the refuge.

Circumpolar Conservation Union  works to create understanding and cooperation among Arctic indigenous peoples, environmental organizations and other interests, by raising public awareness of the importance of the Arctic, and by advocating policies and institutions that will protect the environment, promote sustainability, and respect the human rights of Arctic communities and peoples.

How can we save the Tundra?

There are many things that can be done to save the tundra. One way is by supporting the creation and use of national and state parks that protect areas of tundra. Examples of successful preservation of tundra as parks includes Alaska with 23 national parks, over 2 million visitors annually, and generating $200 million each year; or Russia’s Great Arctic and Gydansky parks, located near the Arctic Circle. Not only do these parks protect and preserve large areas that are untouched by humans but visitors can glimpse polar bears, reindeer, walrus and beluga whales in their natural environments. You can use your voice and influence to advocate for controls over hunting and grazing that allow for diversity and healthy animal populations in the tundra.

Another way to save the tundra is to make a symbolic adoption of a polar bear through World Wildlife Federation. Money from these adoptions is used to further efforts to protect the tundra. You can also urge Congress to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from future threats, more information here. One of the most important things to do is support climate change initiatives and use less fossil fuels by driving less, combining trips and errands, walking, riding a bike, or taking public transportation more often. All of these efforts reduce the need for more oil exploration in the tundra.