See E. Bowen, Grasslands and Tundra (1985).
Treeless, level or rolling ground above the taiga in polar regions (Arctic tundra) or on high mountains (alpine tundra), characterized by bare ground and rock or by such vegetation as mosses, lichens, small herbs, and low shrubs. Animal species are limited by harsh environmental conditions. In the Arctic tundra they include lemmings, the Arctic fox, the Arctic wolf, caribou, reindeer, and musk-oxen. In the alpine tundra many animals, including mountain sheep and wildcats, descend to warmer zones during winter. The climate of alpine tundra is more moderate and has a higher amount of rainfall than does Arctic tundra. The freezing climate of the Arctic produces a layer of permanently frozen soil (permafrost). An overlying layer of soil alternates between freezing and thawing with seasonal temperature variations. Alpine tundras have a freeze-thaw layer but no permafrost. Because Arctic tundras receive extremely long periods of daylight and darkness (lasting between one and four months), biological rhythms tend to be adjusted more to variations in temperature than to variations in sunlight. Arctic tundra covers about one-tenth of the earth's surface. Alpine tundras begin above the timberline of spruce and firs. Because of the small number of plant and animal species and the fragility of the food chains in tundra regions, natural or mechanical damage to any element of the habitat affects the whole ecosystem.
Learn more about tundra with a free trial on Britannica.com.
In physical geography, tundra is an area where the tree growth is hindered by low temperatures and short growing seasons. The term "tundra" comes from Kildin Sami tūndâr "uplands, tundra, treeless mountain tract". There are two types of tundra: Arctic tundra (which also occurs in Antarctica), and alpine tundra. In tundra, the vegetation is composed of dwarf shrubs, sedges and grasses, mosses, and lichens. Scattered trees grow in some tundra. The ecotone (or ecological boundary region) between the tundra and the forest is known as the tree line or timberline.
Arctic tundra occurs in the far Northern Hemisphere, north of the taiga belt. The word "tundra" usually refers only to the areas where the subsoil is permafrost, or permanently frozen soil. (It may also refer to the treeless plain in general, so that northern Sápmi would be included.) Permafrost tundra includes vast areas of northern Russia and Canada. The polar tundra is home to several peoples who are mostly nomadic reindeer herders, such as the Nganasan and Nenets in the permafrost area (and the Sami in Sápmi).
The Arctic tundra is a vast area of stark landscape, which is frozen for much of the year. The soil there is frozen from 25–90 cm (9.8–35.4 inches) down, and it is impossible for trees to grow. Instead, bare and sometimes rocky land can only support low growing plants such as moss, heath, and lichen. There are two main seasons, winter and summer, in the polar tundra areas. During the winter it is very cold and dark, with the average temperature around , sometimes dipping as low as . However, extreme cold temperatures on the tundra do not drop as low as those experienced in taiga areas further south (for example, Russia's and Canada's lowest temperatures were recorded in locations south of the treeline). During the summer, temperatures rise somewhat, and the top layer of the permafrost melts, leaving the ground very soggy. The tundra is covered in marshes, lakes, bogs and streams during the warm months. Generally daytime temperatures during the summer rise to about but can often drop to or even below freezing. Arctic tundras are sometimes the subject of habitat conservation programs. In Canada and Russia, many of these areas are protected through a national Biodiversity Action Plan.
The tundra is a very windy area, with winds often blowing upwards at 48–97 km/h (30–60 miles an hour). However, in terms of precipitation, it is desert-like, with only about 15–25 cm (6–10 inches) falling per year (the summer is typically the season of maximum precipitation). During the summer, the permafrost thaws just enough to let plants grow and reproduce, but because the ground below this is frozen, the water cannot sink any lower, and so the water forms the lakes and marshes found during the summer months. Although precipitation is light, evaporation is also relatively minimal.
The biodiversity of the tundras is low: 1,700 species of vascular plants and only 48 land mammals can be found, although thousands of insects and birds migrate there each year for the marshes. There are also a few fish species such as the flat fish. There are few species with large populations. Notable animals in the Arctic tundra include caribou (reindeer), musk ox, arctic hare, arctic fox, snowy owl, lemmings, and polar bears (only the extreme north).
Due to the harsh climate of the Arctic tundra, regions of this kind have seen little human activity, even though they are sometimes rich in natural resources such as oil and uranium. In recent times this has begun to change in Alaska, Russia, and some other parts of the world.
A severe threat to the tundras, specifically to the permafrost, is global warming. The melting of the permafrost in a given area on human time scales (decades or centuries) could radically change which species can survive there.
Another concern is that about one third of the world's soil-bound carbon is in taiga and tundra areas. When the permafrost melts, it releases carbon in the form of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The effect has been observed in Alaska. In the 1970s the tundra was a carbon sink, but today, it is a carbon source.
The flora and fauna of Antarctica and the Antarctic Islands (south of 60° south latitude) are protected by the Antarctic Treaty.
Tundra also occurs on Tierra del Fuego and southern Argentina. Notable plant and lichen species of this tundra include Neuropogon aurantiaco, Azorella lycopodioides, Marsippospermum reichei, Nardophyllum bryoides, and Bolax gummifera.
Alpine tundra is an ecozone that does not contain trees because it has high altitude. Alpine tundra occurs at high enough altitude at any latitude on Earth. Alpine tundra also lacks trees, but the lower part does not have permafrost, and alpine soils are generally better drained than permafrost soils. Alpine tundra transitions to subalpine forests below the tree line; stunted forests occurring at the forest-tundra ecotone are known as Krummholz. Alpine tundra occurs in an alpine zone.
Because alpine tundra is located in various widely-separated regions of the Earth, there is no animal species common to all areas of alpine tundra. Some animals of alpine tundra environments include the Kea parrot, marmot, Mountain goats, chinchilla, and pika.
Large sections of the Tibetan Plateau include alpine tundra.
Despite the potential diversity of climates in the ET category involving precipitation, extreme temperatures, and relative wet and dry seasons, this category is rarely subdivided. Rainfall and snowfall are generally slight due to the limited capacity of the chilly atmosphere to hold water vapor, but as a rule potential evapotranspiration is extremely low, allowing soggy terrain of swamps and bogs even in places that get precipitation typical of deserts of lower and middle latitudes. Scarcity or lushness (by polar standards) of native vegetation of tundra regions depends more upon the severity of the temperatures than upon the scarcity or copiousness of precipitation. The alpine tundra also lacks in precipitation compared to the Arctic tundra.