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In physical geography
Physical geography
Physical geography is one of the two major subfields of geography. Physical geography is that branch of natural science which deals with the study of processes and patterns in the natural environment like the atmosphere, biosphere and geosphere, as opposed to the cultural or built environment, the...

, tundra is a biome
Biomes are climatically and geographically defined as similar climatic conditions on the Earth, such as communities of plants, animals, and soil organisms, and are often referred to as ecosystems. Some parts of the earth have more or less the same kind of abiotic and biotic factors spread over a...

 where the tree
A tree is a perennial woody plant. It is most often defined as a woody plant that has many secondary branches supported clear of the ground on a single main stem or trunk with clear apical dominance. A minimum height specification at maturity is cited by some authors, varying from 3 m to...

 growth is hindered by low temperatures and short growing seasons. The term tundra comes through Russian тундра from the Kildin Sami word tūndâr "uplands," "treeless mountain tract." There are three types of tundra: Arctic tundra, alpine tundra, and Antarctic tundra. In tundra, the vegetation
Arctic vegetation
In the Arctic, the low tundra vegetation clothes a landscape of wide vistas, lit by the low-angle light characteristic of high latitudes. Much of the Arctic shows little impact from human activities, making it one of the few places on earth one can see intact ecosystems. Those who have had the...

 is composed of dwarf shrubs, sedges
Cyperaceae are a family of monocotyledonous graminoid flowering plants known as sedges, which superficially resemble grasses or rushes. The family is large, with some 5,500 species described in about 109 genera. These species are widely distributed, with the centers of diversity for the group...

 and grasses
The Poaceae is a large and nearly ubiquitous family of flowering plants. Members of this family are commonly called grasses, although the term "grass" is also applied to plants that are not in the Poaceae lineage, including the rushes and sedges...

, moss
Mosses are small, soft plants that are typically 1–10 cm tall, though some species are much larger. They commonly grow close together in clumps or mats in damp or shady locations. They do not have flowers or seeds, and their simple leaves cover the thin wiry stems...

es, and lichen
Lichens are composite organisms consisting of a symbiotic organism composed of a fungus with a photosynthetic partner , usually either a green alga or cyanobacterium...

s. Scattered trees grow in some tundra. The ecotone
An ecotone is a transition area between two biomes but different patches of the landscape, such as forest and grassland. It may be narrow or wide, and it may be local or regional...

 (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
Northern Hemisphere
The Northern Hemisphere is the half of a planet that is north of its equator—the word hemisphere literally means “half sphere”. It is also that half of the celestial sphere north of the celestial equator...

, north of the taiga
Taiga , also known as the boreal forest, is a biome characterized by coniferous forests.Taiga is the world's largest terrestrial biome. In North America it covers most of inland Canada and Alaska as well as parts of the extreme northern continental United States and is known as the Northwoods...

 belt. The word "tundra" usually refers only to the areas where the subsoil is permafrost
In geology, permafrost, cryotic soil or permafrost soil is soil at or below the freezing point of water for two or more years. Ice is not always present, as may be in the case of nonporous bedrock, but it frequently occurs and it may be in amounts exceeding the potential hydraulic saturation of...

, 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
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

 and Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

. The polar tundra is home to several peoples who are mostly nomad
Nomadic people , commonly known as itinerants in modern-day contexts, are communities of people who move from one place to another, rather than settling permanently in one location. There are an estimated 30-40 million nomads in the world. Many cultures have traditionally been nomadic, but...

ic reindeer herders, such as the Nganasan
Nganasan people
The Nganasans are one of the indigenous peoples of Siberia. They are the northernmost of the Samoyedic peoples, living on the Taymyr Peninsula by the Arctic Ocean. Their territory is part of Krasnoyarsk Krai. Their "capital" is the settlement of Ust-Avam...

 and Nenets in the permafrost area (and the Sami
Sami people
The Sami people, also spelled Sámi, or Saami, are the arctic indigenous people inhabiting Sápmi, which today encompasses parts of far northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Kola Peninsula of Russia, and the border area between south and middle Sweden and Norway. The Sámi are Europe’s northernmost...

 in Sápmi).

Arctic tundra contains areas of stark landscape and 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
Mosses are small, soft plants that are typically 1–10 cm tall, though some species are much larger. They commonly grow close together in clumps or mats in damp or shady locations. They do not have flowers or seeds, and their simple leaves cover the thin wiry stems...

, heath (Ericaceae
The Ericaceae, commonly known as the heath or heather family, is a group of mostly calcifuge flowering plants. The family is large, with roughly 4000 species spread across 126 genera, making it the 14th most speciose family of flowering plants...

 varieties such as crowberry
Crowberry is a small genus of dwarf evergreen shrubs that bear edible fruit. They are commonly found in the northern hemisphere, from temperate to subarctic climates, and also in the Southern Andes of South America and on the South Atlantic islands of South Georgia, the Falklands and Tristan da...

 and black bearberry), and lichen
Lichens are composite organisms consisting of a symbiotic organism composed of a fungus with a photosynthetic partner , usually either a green alga or cyanobacterium...

. 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 -28 °C, sometimes dipping as low as -50 °C. 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 tree line). 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 12 °C (53.6 °F) but can often drop to 3 °C (37.4 °F) or even below freezing. Arctic tundras are sometimes the subject of habitat
Habitat (ecology)
A habitat is an ecological or environmental area that is inhabited by a particular species of animal, plant or other type of organism...

Conservation movement
The conservation movement, also known as nature conservation, is a political, environmental and a social movement that seeks to protect natural resources including animal, fungus and plant species as well as their habitat for the future....

 programs. In Canada and Russia, many of these areas are protected through a national Biodiversity Action Plan
Biodiversity Action Plan
A Biodiversity Action Plan is an internationally recognized program addressing threatened species and habitats and is designed to protect and restore biological systems. The original impetus for these plans derives from the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity...

The tundra is a very windy area, with winds often blowing upwards of 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
Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, biome, or an entire planet. Biodiversity is a measure of the health of ecosystems. Biodiversity is in part a function of climate. In terrestrial habitats, tropical regions are typically rich whereas polar regions...

 of the tundras is low: 1,700 species of vascular plants and only 48 land mammals can be found, although millions of birds migrate there each year for the marshes. There are also a few fish species such as the flatfish
The flatfish are an order of ray-finned fish, also called the Heterosomata, sometimes classified as a suborder of Perciformes. In many species, both eyes lie on one side of the head, one or the other migrating through and around the head during development...

. There are few species with large populations. Notable animals in the Arctic tundra include caribou
The reindeer , also known as the caribou in North America, is a deer from the Arctic and Subarctic, including both resident and migratory populations. While overall widespread and numerous, some of its subspecies are rare and one has already gone extinct.Reindeer vary considerably in color and size...

 (reindeer), musk ox
Musk Ox
The muskox is an Arctic mammal of the family Bovidae, noted for its thick coat and for the strong odor emitted by males, from which its name derives. This musky odor is used to attract females during mating season...

, arctic hare
Arctic Hare
The arctic hare , or polar rabbit is a species of hare which is adapted largely to polar and mountainous habitats. The arctic hare survives with a thick coat of fur and usually digs holes under the ground or snow to keep warm and sleep...

, arctic fox
Arctic fox
The arctic fox , also known as the white fox, polar fox or snow fox, is a small fox native to Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere and is common throughout the Arctic tundra biome. The Greek word alopex, means a fox and Vulpes is the Latin version...

, snowy owl
Snowy Owl
The Snowy Owl is a large owl of the typical owl family Strigidae. The Snowy Owl was first classified in 1758 by Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist who developed binomial nomenclature to classify and organize plants and animals. The bird is also known in North America as the Arctic Owl, Great...

, lemming
Lemmings are small rodents, usually found in or near the Arctic, in tundra biomes. They are subniveal animals, and together with voles and muskrats, they make up the subfamily Arvicolinae , which forms part of the largest mammal radiation by far, the superfamily Muroidea, which also includes rats,...

s, and polar bear
Polar Bear
The polar bear is a bear native largely within the Arctic Circle encompassing the Arctic Ocean, its surrounding seas and surrounding land masses. It is the world's largest land carnivore and also the largest bear, together with the omnivorous Kodiak Bear, which is approximately the same size...

s (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
Petroleum or crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights and other liquid organic compounds, that are found in geologic formations beneath the Earth's surface. Petroleum is recovered mostly through oil drilling...

 and uranium
Uranium is a silvery-white metallic chemical element in the actinide series of the periodic table, with atomic number 92. It is assigned the chemical symbol U. A uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons...

. In recent times this has begun to change in Alaska
Alaska is the largest state in the United States by area. It is situated in the northwest extremity of the North American continent, with Canada to the east, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south, with Russia further west across the Bering Strait...

, Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

, and some other parts of the world.

A severe threat to the tundras, specifically to the permafrost, is global warming
Global warming
Global warming refers to the rising average temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans and its projected continuation. In the last 100 years, Earth's average surface temperature increased by about with about two thirds of the increase occurring over just the last three decades...

. 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
Carbon is the chemical element with symbol C and atomic number 6. As a member of group 14 on the periodic table, it is nonmetallic and tetravalent—making four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds...

 is in taiga
Taiga , also known as the boreal forest, is a biome characterized by coniferous forests.Taiga is the world's largest terrestrial biome. In North America it covers most of inland Canada and Alaska as well as parts of the extreme northern continental United States and is known as the Northwoods...

 and tundra areas. When the permafrost melts, it releases carbon in the form of carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring chemical compound composed of two oxygen atoms covalently bonded to a single carbon atom...

 and methane
Methane is a chemical compound with the chemical formula . It is the simplest alkane, the principal component of natural gas, and probably the most abundant organic compound on earth. The relative abundance of methane makes it an attractive fuel...

, both of which are greenhouse gas
Greenhouse gas
A greenhouse gas is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect. The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone...

es. The effect has been observed in Alaska. In the 1970s the tundra was a carbon sink, but today, it is a carbon source.


Antarctic tundra occurs on Antarctica and on several Antarctic and subantarctic islands, including South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is a British overseas territory and overseas territory of the European Union in the southern Atlantic Ocean. It is a remote and inhospitable collection of islands, consisting of South Georgia and a chain of smaller islands, known as the South Sandwich...

 and the Kerguelen Islands
Kerguelen Islands
The Kerguelen Islands , also known as the Desolation Islands, are a group of islands in the southern Indian Ocean constituting the emerged part of the otherwise submerged Kerguelen Plateau. The islands, along with Adélie Land, the Crozet Islands and the Amsterdam and Saint Paul Islands are part of...

. Most of Antarctica is too cold and dry to support vegetation, and most of the continent is covered by ice fields. However, some portions of the continent, particularly the Antarctic Peninsula
Antarctic Peninsula
The Antarctic Peninsula is the northernmost part of the mainland of Antarctica. It extends from a line between Cape Adams and a point on the mainland south of Eklund Islands....

, have areas of rocky soil that support plant life. The flora presently consists of around 300–400 lichens, 100 mosses, 25 liverworts
The Marchantiophyta are a division of bryophyte plants commonly referred to as hepatics or liverworts. Like other bryophytes, they have a gametophyte-dominant life cycle, in which cells of the plant carry only a single set of genetic information....

, and around 700 terrestrial and aquatic algae species, which live on the areas of exposed rock and soil around the shore of the continent. Antarctica's two flowering plant species, the Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis), are found on the northern and western parts of the Antarctic Peninsula.

In contrast with the Arctic tundra, the Antarctic tundra lacks a large mammal fauna, mostly due to its physical isolation from the other continents. Sea mammals and sea birds, including seals
Pinnipeds or fin-footed mammals are a widely distributed and diverse group of semiaquatic marine mammals comprising the families Odobenidae , Otariidae , and Phocidae .-Overview: Pinnipeds are typically sleek-bodied and barrel-shaped...

 and penguin
Penguins are a group of aquatic, flightless birds living almost exclusively in the southern hemisphere, especially in Antarctica. Highly adapted for life in the water, penguins have countershaded dark and white plumage, and their wings have become flippers...

s, inhabit areas near the shore, and some small mammals, like rabbit
Rabbits are small mammals in the family Leporidae of the order Lagomorpha, found in several parts of the world...

s and cat
The cat , also known as the domestic cat or housecat to distinguish it from other felids and felines, is a small, usually furry, domesticated, carnivorous mammal that is valued by humans for its companionship and for its ability to hunt vermin and household pests...

s, have been introduced by humans to some of the subantarctic islands. The Antipodes Subantarctic Islands tundra
Antipodes Subantarctic Islands tundra
The Antipodes Subantarctic Islands tundra ecoregion, within the Tundra Biome, includes five remote island groups in the Southern Ocean south of New Zealand: the Bounty Islands, Auckland Islands, Antipodes Islands and Campbell Island groups of New Zealand, and Macquarie Island of Australia.-Location...

An ecoregion , sometimes called a bioregion, is an ecologically and geographically defined area that is smaller than an ecozone and larger than an ecosystem. Ecoregions cover relatively large areas of land or water, and contain characteristic, geographically distinct assemblages of natural...

 includes the Bounty Islands
Bounty Islands
The Bounty Islands at are a small group of 13 granite islets and numerous rocks, with a combined area of , in the south Pacific Ocean that are territorially part of New Zealand. They are located between 47°44'35" and 47°46'10" S, and 179°01' and 179°04'20" E, southeast of the South Island of New...

, Auckland Islands
Auckland Islands
The Auckland Islands are an archipelago of the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands and include Auckland Island, Adams Island, Enderby Island, Disappointment Island, Ewing Island, Rose Island, Dundas Island and Green Island, with a combined area of...

, Antipodes Islands
Antipodes Islands
The Antipodes Islands are inhospitable volcanic islands to the south of—and territorially part of—New Zealand...

, the Campbell Island group
Campbell Island group
The Campbell Island group is a group of subantarctic islands, belonging to New Zealand. The group has a total area of , consisting of one big island, Campbell Island , and several small islets, notably Dent Island , Isle de Jeanette Marie , Jacquemart Island , and Monowai Island 1...

, and Macquarie Island
Macquarie Island
Macquarie Island lies in the southwest corner of the Pacific Ocean, about half-way between New Zealand and Antarctica, at 54°30S, 158°57E. Politically, it has formed part of the Australian state of Tasmania since 1900 and became a Tasmanian State Reserve in 1978. In 1997 it became a world heritage...

. Species endemic to this ecoregion include Nematoceras dienemum
Nematoceras dienemum
Nematoceras dienemum , also known as the Windswept Helmet-orchid, is one of two helmet orchids endemic to Australia’s subantarctic Macquarie Island, and the first orchid to be found there...

and Nematoceras sulcatum
Nematoceras sulcatum
Nematoceras sulcatum, also known as the Grooved Helmet-orchid, is one of two helmet orchids endemic to Australia’s subantarctic Macquarie Island, and the second to be discovered. The specific epithet comes from the Latin sulcatus – “grooved”, with reference to the prominent groove in the labellum...

, the only Subantarctic orchids; the royal penguin
Royal Penguin
The Royal Penguin inhabits the waters surrounding Antarctica. Royals look very much like Macaroni Penguins, but have a white face and chin instead of the Macaronis' black visage. They are long and weigh . Males are larger than females...

; and the Antipodean albatross.

The flora and fauna of Antarctica and the Antarctic Islands (south of 60° south latitude) are protected by the Antarctic Treaty.


Alpine tundra does not contain trees because it is at high altitude
Altitude or height is defined based on the context in which it is used . As a general definition, altitude is a distance measurement, usually in the vertical or "up" direction, between a reference datum and a point or object. The reference datum also often varies according to the context...

. Alpine tundra is distinguished from arctic tundra in that alpine tundra typically does not have permafrost, and alpine soils are generally better drained than arctic soils. Alpine tundra transitions to subalpine forests below the tree line; stunted forests occurring at the forest-tundra ecotone
An ecotone is a transition area between two biomes but different patches of the landscape, such as forest and grassland. It may be narrow or wide, and it may be local or regional...

 are known as Krummholz
Krummholz or Krumholtz formation — also called Knieholz — is a particular feature of subarctic and subalpine tree line landscapes. Continual exposure to fierce, freezing winds causes vegetation to become stunted and deformed...


Alpine tundra occurs in mountains worldwide. The flora of the alpine tundra is characterized by dwarf shrubs close to the ground. The cold climate of the alpine tundra is caused by the low air pressure, and is similar to polar climate
Polar climate
Regions with a polar climate are characterized by a lack of warm summers . Regions with polar climate cover over 20% of the Earth. The sun shines 24 hours in the summer, and barely ever shines at all in the winter...


Climatic classification

Tundra climates ordinarily fit the Köppen climate classification
Köppen climate classification
The Köppen climate classification is one of the most widely used climate classification systems. It was first published by Crimea German climatologist Wladimir Köppen in 1884, with several later modifications by Köppen himself, notably in 1918 and 1936...

 ET, signifying a local climate in which at least one month has an average temperature high enough to melt snow (0°C or 32°F), but no month with an average temperature in excess of (10°C/50°F). The cold limit generally meets the EF climates of permanent ice and snow
Ice cap
An ice cap is an ice mass that covers less than 50 000 km² of land area . Masses of ice covering more than 50 000 km² are termed an ice sheet....

s; the warm-summer limit generally corresponds with the poleward or altitudinal limit of trees, where they grade into the subarctic climate
Subarctic climate
The subarctic climate is a climate characterized by long, usually very cold winters, and short, cool to mild summers. It is found on large landmasses, away from the moderating effects of an ocean, generally at latitudes from 50° to 70°N poleward of the humid continental climates...

s designated Dfd and Dwd (extreme winters as in parts of Siberia
Siberia is an extensive region constituting almost all of Northern Asia. Comprising the central and eastern portion of the Russian Federation, it was part of the Soviet Union from its beginning, as its predecessor states, the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire, conquered it during the 16th...

), Dfc typical in Alaska, Canada, European Russia
European Russia
European Russia refers to the western areas of Russia that lie within Europe, comprising roughly 3,960,000 square kilometres , larger in area than India, and spanning across 40% of Europe. Its eastern border is defined by the Ural Mountains and in the south it is defined by the border with...

, and Western Siberia
West Siberian Plain
The West Siberian Plain is a large plain that occupies the western portion of Siberia, between the Ural Mountains in the west and the Yenisei River in the east, and by the Altay Mountains on the South-East. Much of the plain is poorly drained and consists of some of the world's largest swamps and...

 (cold winters with months of freezing), or even Cfc (no month colder than -3°C as in parts of Iceland
Iceland , described as the Republic of Iceland, is a Nordic and European island country in the North Atlantic Ocean, on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Iceland also refers to the main island of the country, which contains almost all the population and almost all the land area. The country has a population...

 and southernmost South America
South America
South America is a continent situated in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemisphere. The continent is also considered a subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the north and east...

). Tundra climates as a rule are hostile to woody vegetation even where the winters are comparatively mild by polar standards, as in Iceland.

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 low vapor pressure
Vapor pressure
Vapor pressure or equilibrium vapor pressure is the pressure of a vapor in thermodynamic equilibrium with its condensed phases in a closed system. All liquids have a tendency to evaporate, and some solids can sublimate into a gaseous form...

 of water in the chilly atmosphere, but as a rule potential evapotranspiration is extremely low, allowing soggy terrain of swamps and bogs even in places that get precipitation typical of desert
A desert is a landscape or region that receives an extremely low amount of precipitation, less than enough to support growth of most plants. Most deserts have an average annual precipitation of less than...

s of lower and middle latitudes. The amount of native tundra biomass depends more on the local temperature than the amount of precipitation.

See also

  • List of tundra ecoregions from the WWF
    World Wide Fund for Nature
    The World Wide Fund for Nature is an international non-governmental organization working on issues regarding the conservation, research and restoration of the environment, formerly named the World Wildlife Fund, which remains its official name in Canada and the United States...

  • Alas
  • Fellfield
    A fellfield or fell field comprises the environment of a slope, usually alpine or tundra, where the dynamics of frost and of wind give rise to characteristic plant forms in scree interstices.-Soil dynamics:...

  • Park Tundra
    Park Tundra
    Park tundra was a plant community that occurred in northwestern Europe after the last ice age ended. The community was similar to that found today at the boundary between tundra and taiga in Siberia: species included the dwarf birch and the least willow. Park tundra stretched as far south as the...

  • Steppe-tundra
    Steppe-tundra is a very cold dry-climate vegetation type consisting of mostly treeless open herbaceous vegetation. it was widespread during Pleistocene times at mid-latitudes of North America and Eurasia. Steppe-tundra can be divided into two types...

External links