Deriving from the Finnish for ‘barren land’, the vast, airless tundras that cover the most remote regions of our planet might at first seem inhospitable - but for adventurers who want to experience an icy world that is entirely different to our own, the opportunities to see wildlife in the starkly beautiful environments of the Arctic and Alpine are very real.
With the average winter temperature a bitingly cold -34 degrees, tundra ecosystems cover 10% of the Earth’s surface. These tough, icy environments are found close to the North and South Poles, as well as in mountainous regions from the Nepalese Himalayas to South America’s Andes.
Weather in the tundra is harsh, with temperatures remaining below freezing for 10 months of the year. The animals that live here have adapted to survive in these tough conditions, and are joined in the tundra’s brief summers by a flurry of insects and migratory birds.
- Found in Arctic and Alpine regions
- Extremely cold climate
- Low biodiversity
- Short fertile season
- Very little rain
- Frozen landscape
- Harsh conditions
- Limited water drainage
- Long, dark winters
- Very few, if any, trees
- Open foothills
There are a number of threats to the tundra biome, including air pollution, the encroachment of industrial activity, and invasive species.
In the incredibly delicate ecosystem of the Arctic tundra, oil extraction, rising temperatures and human settlement are putting an unsustainable level of pressure on the environment. As well as oil extraction, the need for fuel that can be extracted through mining can increase the risk of toxic spills, which can do irreparable damage to the surrounding habitat.
Climate change is also affecting the Arctic tundra, with the melting of its permafrost causing increased greenhouse gas emissions. Because of its slow rate of growth, any changes that disrupt this vulnerable environment are likely to have long-term consequences - the tundra is not a habitat that can repair itself easily.
A wildlife tour in the tundra gives the opportunity to spot some of the often elusive animals that call these areas home, including polar bears, walrus, caribou, wolverines, grey wolves and grizzly bears. In the Arctic summer, gatherings of beluga whales can often be spotted at the mouth of Canada’s Churchill River.
Often, travelling to a tundra habitat means exploring either on foot or, in the case of the Arctic tundra, by boat. Hiking, wild camping, kayaking and trying to spot the Northern Lights are all popular activities for visitors.
The starkness of the tundra brings about a bleak beauty, almost entirely untouched by human hands. The Kobuk River in Alaska, the tundra of northern Greenland (known as ‘Kalaallit Nunaat’ in the native language), and the Antipodes Subantarctic Islands, found south of New Zealand, are all areas of stunning natural beauty.
Animals living in the Arctic tundra include polar bears, caribou, Arctic hares, reindeer, mountain goats, lemmings, seals, musk oxen, Arctic wolves, and brown bears. The tough conditions present in the tundra mean that many bird species migrate to the area in the summer, rather than living there all year round.
Plants in tundra environments have to be hardy and tough, in order to survive in incredibly harsh conditions. Not much grows here, but plants that can be found in these habitats include moss, lichen, small shrubs, and some types of grass.
Many tundra habitats are found in high latitude areas, close to the North Pole. Countries with tundra include Iceland, Greenland, Russia and Canada, and it is also found in parts of Scandinavia (Sweden, Finland and Norway) and the US state of Alaska. Some areas of tundra can also be found in Antarctica, and in the USA’s Appalachian Mountains, Western Europe's Pyrenees, South America's Andes, Asia's Himalayas, and Africa's Eastern Rift mountains.