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Arctic tundra is a vast open plain, a treeless landscape in the polar regions of the Northern Hemisphere (Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Russia) where extreme weather and permafrost limit flora to a stunted vegetative cover (lichens, mosses, and grasses). Only a few species of hibernating mammals (musk ox, wolf/fox, and bear) live year-round in the tundra while other animals (caribou/reindeer, geese, and snowy owls) migrate during the warmer months.

Alpine tundra is found throughout the world and consists of high-altitude ecosystems (generally above 3,000 meters depending on the latitude) similar to those of the arctic. The forest-tundra, a transition zone that parallels the boreal forest to the south, consists of patches of continuous forest cover interspersed with tundra-like open areas. In spite of the extremely cold and dry characteristics that significantly reduce the level of human intervention, the tundra remains one of earth’s most fragile ecosystem, sensitive to disturbances and generally unable to restore itself once degraded: a simple food web indicates a delicate balance among species with little room for adaptation.

Large-scale extractive industries (oil, gas, and minerals) in Russia and Alaska pose the greatest ecological threat to the tundra ecosystems. The expansion of agriculture/livestock, vehicular traffic, and tourism are also creating additional pressures that have resulted in significant degradation. In certain parts of the arctic tundra, erosion is emerging as a serious problem due to permafrost thaw, overgrazing, and deforestation.


USDA Forest Service provides a brief description of the Arctic tundra.

UNEP Global Environmental Outlook 1 (1997) addresses the major environmental concerns of the arctic region.

UNEP Global Environmental Outlook 3 (2002) has a brief summary on arctic ecosystems.

US Bureau of Land Management addresses the issues facing Alaska’s Cold Desert.

International Polar Year (2007-2008) aims to provide better observation and understanding of the Earth’s polar regions, and to focus the world’s attention on their importance.

The We – State of the Planet – Arctic combines news articles and environmental analysis of the arctic tundra including past environmental degradation and future challenges.

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