Skip to main content
Select Source:

Tundra

Tundra

Tundra is the global biome that consists of the treeless regions in the north (Arctic tundra) and high mountains (alpine tundra). The vegetation of tundra is low growing, and consists mainly of sedges, grasses, dwarf shrubs, wildflowers, mosses, and lichens. The word "tundra" is derived from the Finnish word "tunturi," which refers to the upland treeless parts of hills and low mountains free of woodlands.

Tundra climates are extremely cold and snowy in winter. Summers are cool. The southern or lower limit of trees corresponds roughly to a mean July temperature between 10 and 12 degrees Celsius (50 and 53.6 degrees Fahrenheit), but in maritime areas the limiting summer temperature can be lower. Low shrubs, less than about 1 meter (3.2 feet) tall, and peaty soils are common near treeline. In the northern extremes and at higher elevations, the landscapes are predominantly barren with scattered wildflowers, such as purple mountain saxifrage and Arctic poppies, mosses, and lichens. Most of the Arctic tundra regions are underlain by permafrost, ground that is permanently frozen beneath a shallow layer of soil that thaws annually.

Tundra ecosystems have a variety of animal species that do not exist in other regions, including the Arctic hare, musk oxen, lemmings, Arctic ground squirrels, and ptarmigan. Other animals migrate annually to the Arctic including caribou and many species of birds.

The Arctic tundra is the least exploited of Earth's biomes. It is a unique biological laboratory for scientists to study unaltered ecosystems. The chief ecological concerns in the Arctic tundra are cumulative impacts of oil and mineral exploitation, roads, tourism, and long-range transport of air pollution from industrial centers to the south. Global warming is likely to have its greatest effect on tundra. Major concerns are the fate of permafrost and the carbon contained in Arctic peat. Decomposition of this carbon could increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

see also Grasses; Grassland

Skip Walker

Bibliography

Wielgolaski, F. E. Polar and Alpine Tundra. The Netherlands: Elsevier, 1997.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Tundra." Biology. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Tundra." Biology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tundra-0

"Tundra." Biology. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tundra-0

tundra

tundra (tŭn´drə), treeless plains of N North America and N Eurasia, lying principally along the Arctic Circle, on the coasts and islands of the Arctic Ocean, and to the north of the coniferous forest belt. The tundra area is widest in N Siberia on the Kara Sea and reaches as far south as 60° N at the neck of the Kamchatka peninsula. Although sometimes called the Arctic steppe and situated mainly within the Arctic Circle, it reaches southward into the Scandinavian, Timan, and Ural mts. For most of the year the mean monthly temperature is below the freezing point; winters are long and severe. The summers are short and relatively warm, but even in July the mean monthly temperature does not rise above 50°F (10°C). Although high temperatures may be reached during a summer day, the subsoil is perpetually frozen. During summer, sedges, mosses, and lichens appear in abundance, along with some flowering plants. Among the few large animal species found in the tundra are the caribou, the arctic fox, the snowshoe rabbit, and occasionally the polar bear. Precipitation is spread evenly during the year and is slight, varying from 8 to 12 in. (20–30 cm). Evaporation is low, and much of the flat ground in areas of poor drainage becomes swampy during the summer months. Because there are very few species of flora and fauna, the destruction of the tundra is a simple process. The elimination of a single species or the disruption of the permanently frozen subsoil (permafrost) may severely damage this fragile ecosystem. Russia's tundra supports a small human population mostly consisting of the Nensty (Samoyedes) and the Komi. Eskimos inhabit the North American tundra.

See E. Bowen, Grasslands and Tundra (1985).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"tundra." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"tundra." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tundra

"tundra." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tundra

Tundra

Tundra

Tundra is treeless vegetation found at high elevation in mountains and in many landscapes of the Arctic. Collectively, ecosystems with tundra vegetation are grouped into the tundra biome. A distinction is usually made between Arctic tundra, which exists beyond the northern limit of tree growth, and alpine tundra, which exists above the elevational limit of tree growth in mountains. In mountains of the far north this distinction becomes blurred as tree lines descend to meet the northern limits of trees. Tundra is dominated by low-growing, perennial angiosperms and by mosses and lichens. Larger plants include grasses, sedges, herbs, and dwarf shrubs, but it is the lack of trees that most characterizes tundra. Plant species commonly found in tundra include sedges; grasses, including many of the genus Poa; willows, blueberries, dwarf birch, and other deciduous and evergreen shrubs or other low-growing woody plants; a host of herbaceous perennials, including many species of the genus Saxifragra, many members of the buttercup family, and several members of the rose family.

Climates of tundra regions are generally cold, and temperatures are commonly below freezing for much of the year, limiting the period of plant growth to a briefly thawed period during summer. Annual precipitation in tundra regions includes snow, although the amount of snow and total precipitation varies tremendously among different areas of tundra. Tundra regions are snow-covered much of the year, but the depth and duration of snow cover differs between locations. The tundra of the Sierra Nevada of California is characterized by heavy winter snow and little summer precipitation, while tundra in the Rocky Mountains generally has less snow but dependable summer rains. Precipitation in tundra regions of the Arctic is generally extremely low, often less than that found in many desert regions, but most soils nonetheless remain moist and may be waterlogged.

It may seem paradoxical that Arctic regions may have less precipitation than many deserts, yet they are covered by moist or wet tundra with numerous ponds and lakes. Low temperatures explain this apparent contradiction, limiting effects of evaporation and contributing to the formation of frost. Soils and materials beneath tundra are considered to be in a permafrost (perennially frozen) condition when they remain frozen for periods of two or more years. Permafrost is a condition generally characteristic of Arctic tundra soils but is also descriptive of isolated portions of the soils of alpine tundra regions. The top of the permafrost layer occurs a few inches to several feet below the surface and can extend downward for many feet. Permafrost soils drain poorly since the frozen soil is as impermeable as rock, and because much of the Arctic landscape is flat. A small amount of precipitation in the Arctic may be held in the thawed soil near the tundra surface, creating a moist landscape dotted with ponds and lakes. The flat Arctic plain is also patterned with irregularly shaped ridges and depressions, called polygons.

Soils of tundra regions are slow to develop due largely to low temperatures and limited periods of thaw. A variety of soil types may develop with time, depending primarily upon moisture or the degree of saturation. Wet tundra, with poor aeration and slow decomposition of plant roots, mosses, and other organic matter, produces highly organic soils, while well-drained tundra is characterized by mineral soils. The soil supply of nitrogen, phosphorus, or other elements needed by plants is often low and limits plant growth, and thus tundra regions generally support fewer animals than grasslands and other biomes. Despite low net primary productivity (plant growth potentially available to grazing animals), tundra regions support a variety of mammals, birds, and insects. Arctic tundra herbivores (plant eaters) include caribou, musk ox, lemmings, insects, hares, ground squirrels, and ptarmigan. Carnivores (eaters of insects or other animals) include many birds, especially waterfowl and shorebirds (that appear only in summer), snowy owls, jaegers, and ravens. Other important Arctic carnivores include Arctic fox, wolves, brown bears, and mosquitoes. The fauna of alpine tundra is variable but commonly includes various species of mountain sheep and/or mountain goats, voles and other rodents, bears, eagles, insects, and a variety of animals characteristic of the adjacent forests that sporadically use tundra habitats.

Within both Arctic and alpine regions exist extremes of vegetation considered atypical of tundra. Many areas within the Arctic are true desert; vegetation scientists classify these areas as polar desert. Tropical high mountains exhibit treeless zones at high elevations, sharing many similarities with the alpine tundra of temperate regions, but the lack of seasons, the large diurnal temperature variations, and the presence of distinct plant growth forms are clear differences. Tropical alpine vegetation commonly includes one plant life form not found in other tundra regions: the tall columnar rosette. In the tropical alpine of Africa this life form is represented by members of the genus Lobelia, in the Andes of South America by members of the genus Espeletia, and in high mountains of Java it is represented by tree ferns. The absence of this life form in Arctic and temperate alpine tundra probably reflects the importance of wind in shaping plants of these ecosystems. Floristic similarities between tropical alpine and temperate alpine or even Arctic tundra regions include genera or species of mosses, lichens, and occasionally vascular plants that are held in common.

During glacial periods of the past, much of the area now covered by the Bering Sea was a land mass. This Bering land bridge, connecting North America and Eurasia, allowed plant and animal populations to migrate between Northern Hemisphere continents of Eurasia and North America. Today many tundra genera, including both plants and animals, have circumpolar distributions (surrounding the northern parts of the world). Since species migrations were made possible during the cold periods of the Pleistocene with lowered sea levels due to great masses of ice on land, tundra-like vegetation formed over great expanses in the Northern Hemisphere. Today isolated alpine regions show remarkable similarities in flora and fauna to those of the Arctic echoing a common tundra heritage.

see also Biogeography; Biome.

Kim Moreau Peterson

Bibliography

Archibold, O. W. Ecology of World Vegetation. London: Chapman & Hall, 1995.

Billings, William Dwight. "Alpine Vegetation." In North American Terrestrial Vegetation, 2nd ed., ed. Michael G. Barbour and William Dwight Billings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bliss, Lawrence C. "Arctic Tundra and Polar Desert Biome." In North American Terrestrial Vegetation, 2nd ed., ed. Michael G. Barbour and William Dwight Billings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Chapin, F. Stuart III, Robert L. Jefferies, James F. Reynolds, Gaius R. Shaver, and Josef Svoboda, eds. Arctic Ecosystems in a Changing Climate: An Ecophysiological Perspective. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1992.

Wielgolaski, F.E., ed. "Polar and Alpine Tundra." In Ecosystems of the World, Vol. 3.

New York: Elsevier Science Ltd., 1997.

COMMON PLANT SPECIES FOUND IN TUNDRA

Sedges (Cyperaceae family)

Carex aquatilis

Carex bigelowii

Eriophorum vaginatum

Eriophorum scheuchzeri

Grasses (Poaceae family)

Poa arctica

Poa alpina

Alopecurus alpinus

Arctophila fulva

Deschampsia caespitosa

Arctagrostis latifolia

Trisetum spicatum

Willows (Salicaceae family)

Salix arctica

Salix rotundifolia

Salix reticulata

Blueberries and Heaths (Ericaceae family)

Vaccinium uliginosum

Vaccinium vitis-idaea

Arctostaphylos alpina

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

Ledum palustre

Cassiope tetragona

Empetrum nigrum

Dwarf birch Betula glandulosa Herbaceous perennials

Saxifrage family

Saxifragra oppositifolia

Saxifragra cernua

Saxifragra caespitosa

Ranunculaceae (Buttercup family)

Ranunculus nivalis

Anemone parviflora

Caltha leptosepala

Rosaceae (Rose family)

Geum Rosii

Dryas integrifolia

Potentilla species Rubus species

Brassicaceae (Mustard family)

Draba species

Artemisia species

Lupinus species

Castilleja species

Pedicularis species

Senecio species

Silene species

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Tundra." Plant Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Tundra." Plant Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tundra

"Tundra." Plant Sciences. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tundra

tundra

tundra A terrestrial biome characterized by a lack of trees and a permanently frozen subsoil. Tundra lies to the north of the taiga in North America and Eurasia; the vegetation is dominated by grasses, sedges, lichens, mosses, heathers, and low shrubs. The growing season, which occurs during the warmest part of the year when the average daily mean temperature is about 10°C, lasts only 2–4 months, during which the topsoil thaws to a depth of 30 cm, allowing roots to penetrate it. However, below this level the soil is permanently frozen (permafrost); water cannot filter through the soil and may lie in surface depressions during the growing season. Compare taiga.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"tundra." A Dictionary of Biology. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"tundra." A Dictionary of Biology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra-2

"tundra." A Dictionary of Biology. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra-2

tundra

tundra Treeless plain of the Arctic and Antarctic, characterized by a low, ‘grassy’ sward. Actually, although grasses are rarely absent, sedges (Carex species), rushes (Juncus species), and wood rushes (Luzula species) are the dominant plants, together with perennial herbs, dwarf woody plants, and various bryophytes (Bryophyta) and lichens.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"tundra." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"tundra." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra

"tundra." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra

tundra

tundra A treeless plain of the Arctic and Antarctic characterized by a low, ‘grassy’ sward. Actually, although grasses are rarely absent, sedges (Carex species), rushes (Juncus species), and wood rushes (Luzula species) are the dominant plants, together with perennial herbs, dwarf woody plants, and various bryophytes and lichens.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"tundra." A Dictionary of Ecology. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"tundra." A Dictionary of Ecology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra-0

"tundra." A Dictionary of Ecology. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra-0

tundra

tundra A treeless plain of the Arctic and Antarctic characterized by a low, ‘grassy’ sward. Actually, although grasses are rarely absent, sedges (Carex species), rushes (Juncus species), and wood rushes (Luzula species) are the dominant plants, together with perennial herbs, dwarf woody plants, and various bryophytes and lichens.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"tundra." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"tundra." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra-1

"tundra." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra-1

tundra

tundra Treeless, level, or gently undulating plain characteristic of arctic and subarctic regions. It is marshy with dark soil that supports mosses, lichens, and low shrubs. It has a permanently frozen subsoil known as permafrost.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"tundra." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"tundra." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tundra

"tundra." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tundra

tundra

tun·dra / ˈtəndrə/ • n. a vast, flat, treeless Arctic region of Europe, Asia, and North America in which the subsoil is permanently frozen.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"tundra." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"tundra." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra-0

"tundra." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra-0

tundra

tundra vast level treeless region of Russia. XIX. — Russ. túndra, of Lappish orig.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"tundra." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"tundra." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra-1

"tundra." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra-1

tundra

tundraabhorrer, adorer, Andorra, angora, aura, aurora, bora, Bora-Bora, borer, Camorra, Cora, corer, Dora, Eleonora, Eudora, explorer, fedora, flora, fora, ignorer, Isadora, Kia-Ora, Laura, Leonora, Maura, menorah, Nora, pakora, Pandora, pourer, roarer, scorer, senhora, señora, signora, snorer, soarer, Sonora, sora, storer, Theodora, Torah, Tuscarora, Vlorë •goalscorer • cobra • okra • Oprah •Socotra • Moira • Sudra •chaulmoogra • supra •Brahmaputra, sutra •Zarathustra • Louvre • fulcra •Tripura •borough, burgh, Burra, curragh, demurrer, thorough •Rubbra •penumbra, umbra •tundra • chakra • ultra • kookaburra

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"tundra." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"tundra." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra

"tundra." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/tundra