The word tundra evokes images of vast expanses of a cold and barren land. In fact, the word tundra comes from the Finnish “tunturia” meaning treeless plain. The tundra is one of the harshest terrestrial biomes, with limited plants and animals. Yet, this environment is still able to support life forms that have adapted to survive the rugged conditions.
Tundra biomes are divided into two different categories, the arctic tundra and the alpine tundra. The arctic tundra is found in the northern hemisphere, encircling the North Pole and extending to the taigas forests. The alpine tundra is found at high altitudes on mountains around the world. The alpine tundra, because of the elevation of the mountains, has more drainage. The surface layers of the arctic tundra melts a few inches deep in summer, creating wet, marshy areas.
The tundra is a cold environment with temperatures below freezing for much of the winter. Summer is short and rarely gets above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In the arctic tundra, the sun can shine for 24 hours of the day. Winds are high in the tundra biome, with speeds between 30 and 60 miles per hour. Spring and fall are only short transition periods between the main seasons of winter and summer.
The tundra is one of the driest biomes on the planet. Only 6 to 10 inches of precipitation fall, usually in the form of snow. Below the soil is the permafrost, a layer of earth that stays frozen. In the summer, the top layer of the permafrost melts and softens, creating shallow lakes and marshes. In these wet, shallow areas, plants are able to grow and reproduce.
About 1700 plants grow in the tundra biome. Though this may sound like a large number, it is quite small compared to other biomes of the world. The plants of the tundra grow low to the ground to keep warm and avoid the damaging winds. Grasses, shrubs, sedges, mosses and lichens are common plants. Trees do not grow on the tundra because the frozen ground prevents the growth of their roots. Only plants with roots that form shallow, dense mats can survive there.
Though there is lot a great deal of biodiversity on the tundra, a number of animal species survive there. About 48 species of land mammals are found, including bears, deer, foxes, rabbits, wolves, musk oven and wolverines. Even an array of insects can be found, including mosquitoes, deer flies, and tiny biting midges. In the summer when the ground turns to a marsh, many migratory birds make the tundra their summer home.
Though the tundra appears to be a harsh environment that is inhospitable to life, many species of plants and animals can be found there. The ways that these organisms have adapted to live in these conditions make the tundra a fascinating place to study.