Life in the Tundra: The Coldest Biome on Earth

Conditions and a Survey of Plants and Animals Calling the Tundra Home

Alpine tundra ecosystems are characterized by dwarf shrubs and plants. ajliikala/Getty Images

The tundra biome is the coldest and one of the largest ecosystems on Earth. It covers about one-fifth of the land on the planet, primarily in the Arctic circle but also in Antarctica as well as a few mountainous regions.

To apprehend the conditions of a tundra, you need only look at the origins of its name. The word tundra comes from the Finnish word tunturia, which means 'treeless plain.' The extremely cold temperatures of the tundra, combined with the lack of precipitation makes for a rather barren landscape. But there are a number of plants and animals that still call this unforgiving ecosystem their home.

There are three types of tundra biomes: Arctic tundra, Antarctic tundra, and Alpine tundra. Here's a closer look at each of these ecosystems and the plants and animals that live there.

Arctic Tundra

The Arctic tundra is found in the far north of the Northern Hemisphere. It circles the North Pole and extends as far south as the northern taiga belt (the beginning of the coniferous forests.) This area is known for its cold and dry conditions. 

The average winter temperature in the Arctic is -34° C (-30° F), while the average summer temperature is 3-12° C (37-54° F.) During the summer, the temperatures get just high enough to sustain some plant growth. The growing season usually lasts around 50-60 days. But the annual precipitation of 6-10 inches limits that growth to only the hardiest of plants.

The Arctic tundra is characterized by its layer of permafrost or permanently frozen subsoil that contains mostly gravel and nutrient-poor soil. This prevents plants with deep root systems from taking hold. But in the upper layers of soil, around 1,700 types of plants find a way to flourish. The Arctic tundra contains a number of low shrubs and sedges as well as reindeer mosses, liverworts, grasses, lichens, and around 400 types of flowers.

There are also a number of animals that call the Arctic tundra home. These include arctic foxes, lemmings, voles, wolves, caribou, arctic hares, polar bears, squirrels, loons, ravens, salmon, trout, and cod. These animals are adapted to live in the cold, harsh conditions of the tundra, but most hibernate or migrate to survive the brutal Arctic tundra winters. Few if any reptiles and amphibians live in the tundra due to the extremely cold conditions.


Antarctic Tundra

The Antarctic tundra is often lumped together with the Arctic tundra as conditions are similar. But, as its name suggests, the Antarctic tundra is located in the Southern Hemisphere around the South Pole and on several Antarctic and subantarctic islands, including South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. 

Like the Arctic tundra, the Antarctic tundra is home to a number of lichens, grasses, liverworts, and mosses. But unlike the Arctic tundra, the Antarctic tundra does not have a thriving population of animal species. This is mostly due to the physical isolation of the area.

Animals that do make their home in the Antarctic tundra include seals, penguins, rabbits, and albatross. 


Alpine Tundra

The primary difference between Alpine tundra and the Arctic and Antarctic tundra biomes is its lack of permafrost. Alpine tundra is still a treeless plain, but without the permafrost, this biome has better draining soils that support a wider variety of plant life. 

Alpine tundra ecosystems are located on various mountain regions throughout the world at elevations above the tree line. While still very cold, the growing season of the Alpine tundra is around 180 days. Plants that thrive in these conditions include dwarf shrubs, grasses, small-leafed shrubs, and heaths. 

Animals that live in the Alpine tundra include pikas, marmots, mountain goats, sheep, elk, and grouse.