What Is the Tundra and Where Is It Located?
The tundra is the coldest of all biomes and is a desolate, flat region of land lying to the north of the coniferous forests along the shores of the Arctic Ocean, that surrounds the north pole, as in Russia, but this is not the only place we can find freezing cold temperatures and a few animals. In Antarctica, and other cold environments, there are areas that can be described as part of a tundra biome as well. The tundra is also quite big and covers about one fifth of the land on earth. The word tundra comes from a Finnish word that means treeless plain, which is a good description of the biome.
Winters are long and cold and summers short and cool. Snow covers the ground and ice covers the rivers and lakes for eight or nine months of the year. Even in the summer only the surface of the soil thaws out and little grows but mosses, lichens and dwarf trees, shrubs and sparse brushwood. In some grassy spaces brilliant polar flowers flourish for a short time, in others, grey rocks and clay-like soil form a dismal landscape.
In the tundra there are many birds, rodents and carnivores, while reindeer roam the region in great herds. Until recently the inhabitants of the tundra led a precarious nomadic existence, based on hunting, fishing and reindeer breeding. Now coal, petroleum, mineral ores and some rare metals have been discovered and vigorous industries are growing in the tundra.
The tundra may seem tough, but it is a very sensitive environment. More people have recently been moving to the tundra to work in the mines and oil industry. New towns and roads are being built to support the increased population. Developments have interrupted many of the animals’ migrations and feeding patterns, as well as caused damage to the permafrost. It takes so long for the tundra to recover that tire tracks and footprints remain on the ground for decades after they were made. In areas of the tundra there are also many natural resources, such as oil.
People worry that pollution from these mines and rigs may ruin the fragile ecosystem. A caribou migration route was interrupted by construction of the Alaskan oil pipeline. In some places the pipeline has been raised high enough above the ground for caribou to pass under it. Insects bombard the tundra in the summer and birds flock there to eat them. Pesticides used to control insects may work their way up through the food chain and affect many of the animals that live on the tundra. We need to be careful with the delicate tundra environment.
There is also much we can learn from the tundra. Permafrost has the ability to preserve plants and animals in the cold ice for long periods of time. Scientists can use the permafrost as a record of the past to learn about climate. These records are a tool to compare past climates with the current climate to see how much the earth may be warming. As we learn more about this unique biome, it is important that we continue to care for it.