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What is a Tundra?

In GCSE Geography students will look at some of the varying climates on planet Earth. This quiz looks in particular at the extreme climate of the tundra, found in the Arctic Circle and some mountain tops.

Tundras are one of the Earth’s most extreme climates. Their combination of cold and dry conditions mean few species are able to survive the harsh environment of a tundra. Found in the Arctic Circle and on top of mountains, tundras are cold places where rainfall is rare and limited and snow is present throughout the winter and often part way into the summer.

Trees are rare in a tundra though cushion plants might survive in the depressions of rock. Summer warmth together with rare rainfall can bring out a wash of summer flowers. In the Arctic Circle the summer growing season is normally only 50-60 days, when the Sun shines 24 hours a day. All the species that have adapted to live in the tundra are extremely sensitive to changing climatic conditions.

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The foundation of this ecosystem is permafrost up to 450m deep. Only melting in the summer to form shallow bogs and pools, this ground is solid and impossible for the roots of most plants to penetrate.

The specific characteristics of the Tundra are:

  • Extremely cold climate.
  • Low biotic diversity.
  • Simple vegetation structure
  • Limitation of drainage
  • Short season of growth and reproduction
  • Energy and nutrients in the form of dead organic material
  • Large population oscillations

Reptiles and amphibians are rare in the tundra because of the extreme cold, and mammals normally hibernate or migrate south to survive the winter. Most bird species migrate to avoid the worst of the winter weather. All species attempt to reproduce and raise their young during the extremely short summer season.

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  1. What is the definition of a tundra?
    The word tundra comes from an early European word for treeless mountain tract, or uplands
  2. What causes the largest population oscillations of animal numbers in the tundra?
    Annual migrations mean that thousands of animals leave for the winter and return the following spring to breed. For the animals that remain spring can bring a welcome influx of food
  3. Which of these is not a way mammals such as the Artic fox have adapted to life in the extreme conditions of a tundra?
    Whilst a black coat would absorb more heat it would also stand out against the snow, making prey easier to hunt and predators easier to avoid
  4. Why is hibernation a useful strategy during the winter for mammals living in the tundra?
    Most mammals don't truly hibernate as their body temperature doesn't drop low enough. Animals such as the polar bear are awake enough to give birth and start to take care of their young during hibernation
  5. Why do flowers bloom rapidly in the Artic summer?
    The longer the flowering period the greater the chances that the plant will produce seeds. Natural selection will remove plants that do not have a successful breeding strategy
  6. Why can’t most reptiles survive the conditions in the tundra?
    Some species of reptiles, such as red-eared sliders - a species of freshwater turtle, have invaded every ecosystem on Earth, except the extreme cold of the polar regions and the tundra
  7. 14% of Earth’s carbon is tied up in permafrost. As the climate warms up this carbon will be released. What will this do to the Earth’s climate?
    It's clear that a massive release of carbon into the atmosphere will have a negative effect, with some seeing extreme consequences in the possible release
  8. Why does soil take so long to form on the tundra?
    There are fewer animals as well, but there are some to leave waste to eventually create soil. Only the top few centimetres of the tundra un-freeze during the summer months
  9. Why are ecosystems such as the tundra often compared to deserts?
    Deserts are defined by the amount of average rainfall. Both deserts and tundra have low levels of precipitation
  10. Species such as the Artic fox have adapted to survive in the harsh conditions of the tundra. What will be the possible impact of climate change on this sort of species?
    Whilst climate change may help species in the short term, in the long term it may be that species will be outcompeted, or become prey as new predators move into the area

Author: Ruth M

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