Arctic Tundra

A Group of Rock Ptarmigans in the Arctic Tundra
Fiona Paton, flickr creative commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The arctic tundra is a harsh environment that only the toughest plants and animals can survive in. The habitat has a long and brutal winter and the barren landscape provides many challenges. Below are some really neat facts about the arctic tundra!


The arctic tundra can be found in the northern parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. Most of the region is found within the Arctic Circle and above the edge of the coniferous forests—latitude 60°N in Canada and Siberia and latitude 70°N in the other countries. While the arctic tundra is confined to only the areas near the north pole, other areas that are part of the tundra biome can be found in Antarctica and certian cold, mountainous regions (alpine tundra).


Map of the Arctic Tundra


True to its name, the arctic tundra is part of the tundra biome, which is very large (taking up about 20% of the earth's surface). Unfortunately, the arctic tundra is shrinking as a result of climate change; the increasing temperatures are causing the permafrost to melt.


The arctic tundra has several distinct features that make it a unique habitat. The permafrost, barren landscape, and cold/dry climate of the arctic tundra are all important characteristics.

Permafrost (Frozen Ground):

Mount Sorrow
NPS Climate Change Response, flickr creative commons, CC BY 2.0
Permafrost melting in the summer
The thin layer of top soil in the arctic tundra thaws during the summer months, but beneath that the ground is permanently frozen. To put it in perspective, the deepest you could dig (even in the warmest summer months) would be approximately 2 feet, anything below that would be frozen solid. Permafrost currently covers approximately 20% of the earth's surface, but this amount is shrinking rapidly due to increases in global temperatures. Melting permafrost leads to a rise in sea-levels and erosion.

Permafrost is very challenging to build on, which is one of the reasons that very few people inhabit the tundra. In the summer most of the arctic tundra is covered in marshes and bogs because the top soil melts, turning firm, frozen soil into soggy, melted soil. Even on solid ground in the winter, building on permafrost can cause the ground to melt underneath, which disrupts the foundation of the building.

Barren Landscape:

Caribou Lookout (barren landscape)
Fiona Paton, flickr creative commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
One of the factors that defines the arctic tundra is the barren lanscape of the biome. In fact, the habitat only starts northward of the taiga-biome (forest) boundary. Since the ground is frozen in the tundra, most plants are not able to grow their roots beneath the top soil or recieve enough nutrients from the soil to sustain their growth. The plants that are able to grow are usually small in height and sprawl across the ground—giving the tundra a barren landscape. The summer is very short in the tundra, which also limits the ability of most plants to grow. The term tundra actually refers to a “treeless plain” or “barren land”. It originates from the Finnish word tunturi.

Cold and Dry Climate:
The arctic tundra is the coldest and driest place on the planet. In the tundra the fall and spring seasons are basically non-existent, leaving only two seasons—winter and summer.

Winter – The winter season is incredibly long, about 8 months. Since the arctic tundra is very close to the north pole, the nights are very long. At the deepest points in the winter the sun may be gone for several weeks straight. This leads to the very cold temperatures: with an average of -34°C during the winter and in the coldest days dipping as cold as -45°C. This is not to mention the harsh wind in the barren land, which can add a bitterness that makes the tundra feel even colder.

Arctic Tundra in the Winter
Brian Romans, flickr creative commons, CC BY-NC 2.0

Summer – The summer season is very short in the arctic tundra (giving plants only 50-60 days to grow each year). The temperature is much warmer and usually ranges somewhere between 3°C and 12°C. A remarkable characteristic of the arctic tundra are the long days of the summer months. At the height of the summer the days last a full 24 hours. If it weren't for this short two month period the arctic tundra would not be a suitable habitat for animals and plants to survive.

Arctic Summer
David Stanley, flickr creative commons, CC BY 2.0

In terms of precipitation the arctic tundra recieves approximately 10 inches in a whole year, sometimes even less! The precipitation mostly comes in the form of snow during the winter season; however, there is also the occasional rainy (or even snowy) day in the summertime.


Due to the permafrost in the arctic tundra, plants that extend their roots deep into the soil (trees for example) are unable to grow. Despite the barren nature of the arctic landscape and harsh conditions of the tundra biome, there are several amazing plants that call the arctic tundra home.

Lichen in the Arctic Tundra
Fiona Paton, flickr creative commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Plants with shallow roots that sprawl across the ground or can grow on a rocky terrain can survive in the tundra. Lichen is an ideal plant for the tundra because it is able to grow on rocks or other places with very little soil and can withstand freezing temperatures for long periods of time. Interestingly, lichen is a combination of algae and fungus, which act in a symbiotic relationship—the algae is responsible for the photosynthesis and the fungus holds water in the plant in order to survive in the dry climate.

Arctic Tundra: Silene acaulis
Jörg Hempel, flickr creative commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

The summer season is incredibly short in the tundra biome, so it is important that plants make the most of the sun. During the summer the wildflowers bloom quickly and beautifully. There are 400 different flowers in the arctic tundra. Most of the flowers that survive in the tundra are perennials; they lay dormant in the cold winters and grow again from the same roots in the summer.

Arctic Grass in the Tundra
Fiona Paton, flickr creative commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The ground of the arctic tundra is marshy and boggy during the summer, so plants must be able to survive in water-logged areas. Seasonal grass thrive anywhere there is a little bit of soil and enough water. You will often see clumps of grass growing in marshy areas of the arctic tundra.

Moss in the Arctic Tundra
Fiona Paton, flickr creative commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The barren landscape leads to strong winds that make surviving in the tundra very difficult. Moss will grow in wide and thick clumps, but what looks like a giant plant is actually hundreds of little tiny plants growing closely together. Growing in bundles allows plants to be sheltered from the harsh conditions, so it is an effective adaptation for many plants in the tundra.



Musk Ox in the Arctic Tundra
Elizabeth Haslam, flickr creative commons, CC BY-NC 2.0
Overall there are approximately 50 different species of animals that are able to call the arctic tundra their home. The population of animals in the arctic tundra is very dynamic because only a few species can survive the winter in the arctic tundra. Therefore, in the summer months there tend to be a lot more animals than the winter. This is due to the fact that many animals—caribou, polar bears, and birds, like the arctic tern or harlequin duck—choose to migrate south during the winter. Some animals, like the musk oxen, lemmings, and the arctic fox, have adapted to survive the long, harsh winters.


Different adaptations include:


Human Presence:

Inuit mother and her baby, trying to hook a fish for supper
BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives, flickr creative commons, CC BY 2.0
Not many people are able to live in the arctic tundra, especially areas of the habitat that lie closer to the north pole. In certain areas of Alaska and Canada there are rather large settlements of humans.

The arctic tundra also has a rich history for the aboriginal people of North America because the tundra is home to the Inuit peoples. The Inuit people had to make their own adaptaions to living in the arctic tundra. There are many different families and groups of inuits, who are known for different things, for example:



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Society, National Geographic. “Permafrost.” National Geographic Society, 9 Oct. 2012,
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“Tundra and Permafrost | Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists.” Ice Stories Dispatches From Polar Scientists RSS, Exploratorium, 2015,
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