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Merriam Webster defines tundra as a large area that has continuously frozen ground and no trees, and it defines biome as a large ecological land type (Tundra; Biome). According to these definitions, tundra biome is a large ecological piece of land that does not have any trees and is characterized by permanent frozen ground. Interesting, tundra comes from the Finnish word tunturia which means “treeless plain” (Pullen, 2004). Tundra biome can be separated into two different types, arctic tundra and alpine tundra, which are distinguished by their climates and locations (Pullen, 2004). Tundra has a specifically harsh climate with cold temperatures that help form a permafrost layer that affects the tundra’s soil formations and plant growth. Although the tundra has a harsh climate, it is home to numerous animal species that are able to survive in various ways. Finally, the tundra is heavily affected by human interaction and could contribute heavily to global warming.
Tundra is one of the youngest and most recently formed biomes since it is believed to have formed only 10,000 years ago. Despite its youth as a biome, tundra is a large biome that covers approximately 20% of the Earth and is mostly located within 60 and 70 degrees latitude north (BioExpedition, 2015).Arctic tundra is concentrated around the Arctic Circle and North Pole and is located in several northern continents such as North America, Europe, and Asia as well as numerous northern countries including Russia, Greenland, Canada, Sweden, Finland, and the United States through Alaska (Born Free Foundation). Alpine tundra is typically found in more diverse areas of the world and can be found above the timberline, the elevation at which trees can no longer grow, on the coldest and highest parts of mountains. Since it is found on the coldest parts of mountains, alpine tundra is located on nearly all the continents including North America in the Rockies, Sierra, and Cascade Mountains, South America in the Andes Mountains, Asia in the Himalayan Mountains, Europe in the Alps Mountains, and Africa in the Rift Mountains (Alpine Tundra).
Characterized by extremely cold temperatures, brutally low levels of precipitation, and heavy winds, the tundra’s climate is one of the harshest climates of all of the biomes. The tundra is known as the coldest biome because its average temperature during the winter is around -30 degrees Fahrenheit, and temperatures can become as freezing cold as -70 degrees Fahrenheit. Summers are a little warmer in the tundra; however, the temperature during the summer ranges from 37 degrees Fahrenheit to 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter tends to be much longer than summer in the tundra; consequently, there is a very short summer and growing period of about 50 to 60 days in the arctic tundra. Along with the freezing temperatures, the tundra also receives very little precipitation and is almost like a frozen desert. Annual precipitation including rain, snow, and melted snow only averages from six to ten inches which leaves the tundra with a very dry climate (Pullen, 2004). Finally, the tundra is also known for its windy climate with wind storms that can reach close to 100 miles per hour (BioExpedition, 2015).
Consistent, extremely low temperatures and the harsh tundra climate help form a thick permafrost layer which is the tundra’s defining terrain. Permafrost is a layer of frozen soil which remains frozen throughout the year for at least two consecutive years and can be as thick as 2,000 feet. During the winter, permafrost helps protect and preserve the plants that are able to survive in harsh conditions (Foster, Koski, &Johnson). During the warmer months of summer in the tundra, the very top level of permafrost, referred to as the active level, often begins to melt (Klappenbach, 2015). Since the tundra is a very flat terrain, there is very little drainage of the melting permafrost layer which results in small ponds or bogs. These ponds and bogs that are formed from the melted active layer help nourish plants and boost the tundra’s low precipitation levels (Foster, Koski, &Johnson). The permafrost level under the active level traps some water and allows plants to grow slowly in cooler soil temperatures (Klappenbach, 2015).
The alternation of thawing and freezing water in the permafrost gives the tundra some of its unique soil formations including polygons, pingo, and thermokarst soil formations. A polygon soil formation forms when the soil shrinks, cracks, and begins to absorb water from the permafrost layers. Pingo soil formations are formed when the soil collects a large amount of water that eventually freezes and expands which forms a large mound of soil. Thermokarst soil formation occurs when human disturbances cause the permafrost to unnaturally melt and leads to collapses and large holes in the soil formation (Klappenbach, 2015). Although the permafrost layer is important in forming these soil formations, the permafrost serves a much more important role in helping certain plants sustain life in the tough tundra climate.
Due to the harsh temperatures and permafrost layers which only allow a short growing period, there are no trees in the tundra because their roots cannot take hold and grow in the permafrost layer. There are also no trees because the growing period in the tundra is too short for trees to have time to grow, and the temperatures are too harsh to support tree growth. Although the tundra’s climate seems unable to support the growth of any plants and leads to lower biotic diversity, there are actually over 1,700 different types of plants that are able to adapt to the harsh tundra environment and sustain life. These types of plants, which include small shrubs, grasses, mosses, liverworts, and over 400 types of flowers, are able to grow close together to withstand the cold temperatures. They are covered and protected by snow during the winter and are able to grow during the short growing season in the summer. They do not rely on deep roots; therefore, they are able to adapt to the changing soil compositions in the permafrost levels, gain the limited nutrients available from the permafrost, and are low enough to withstand the winds. In order to accommodate the harsh temperatures and short growing seasons, these plants are able to perform photosynthesis with limited sun exposure so they thrive during the summer, and they also rely on asexual reproduction methods like budding instead of sexual reproduction (Pullen, 2004).
Even though the climate is harsh and available food sources can be scarce, there are numerous species of animals and wildlife that are able to survive and adapt to the tundra environment. Herbivores such as caribou, reindeer, the arctic hare, and musk-ox are able to survive by grazing on grass and other plant life while carnivores including wolves, red foxes, and polar bears survive by preying on smaller animals like rabbits or some fish that are able to live in the melted parts of the permafrost during the summer. Several species of small birds also are able to live in the tundra by nesting in small shrubs during the summer and feeding off the few insects such as grasshoppers and flies that inhabit the tundra (Foster, Koski, & Johnson). Mammals are able to survive in the tundra during the winter because they have a thick layer of fat for insulation and because they hibernate. Although they can survive during the summer, birds that live in the tundra tend to migrate south during the winter in order to avoid the harsh temperatures. Several other mammals such as mountain goats, sheep, pika, and elk are also commonly found in the alpine tundra in the mountains (Pullen, 2004).
Since there are more animals than plants living on the tundra, the tundra is one of the few areas in the world that is considered to be a carbon dioxide sink. When an area becomes a carbon dioxide sink, much more carbon dioxide is produced than removed from the atmosphere. In the tundra, there are more animals to produce carbon dioxide than there are plants to remove carbon dioxide from the air; consequently, there is an excess of carbon dioxide (BioExpedition, 2015). Permafrost also stores a bountiful amount of carbon under the frozen soil which can be released during climate changes. Human interactions in the tundra such as oil drilling and pollution can upset the ecological balance and cause climate change. Climate changes can cause the permafrost layers to heat up and thaw more quickly than usual which forces the permafrost layers to release more carbon. The melted permafrost allows organic material in the soil to decompose and releases carbon into the air as carbon dioxide which also contributes to the tundra’s carbon dioxide sink. Carbon dioxide is also a heat-absorbing gas and too much carbon dioxide in the air can cause abrupt climate changes that could result in more permafrost melting and could eventually contribute to global warming (Weather Underground, 2015).
The tundra biome is one of the youngest and most interesting biomes in the world. Characterized by its harsh temperatures, lack of precipitation, and wind storms, the tundra is known for its harsh climate and permafrost terrain. Although permafrost is unable to support large tree growth, it is able to support and protect smaller plant life that is able to adapt and survive despite the harsh conditions. Many animals also inhabit the tundra and are able to survive in various ways. The imbalance of plant and animal life combined with human interactions cause the tundra to be a carbon dioxide sink which could have devastating consequences for the Earth if it leads to global warming.
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