Tundra of North America

Tundra of North America

The tundra of North America is a biome, or ecosystem, that extends across the north of the continent, including Alaska in the United States and Canada. The tundra is a cold and harsh area where conditions for plant and animal life are extremely unfavorable due to low temperatures, short summer seasons, lack of trees, and almost constant presence of permafrost.

The tundra of North America is part of the natural tundra zone of the Northern Hemisphere.

Arctic Tundra

The Arctic tundra is an area of low, flat and marshy coastal plains covered with lakes filled with melted ice.

The American tundra zone occupies the northern part of the North American mainland and runs from Northern Alaska along the Hudson Bay coast to northern Labrador and Newfoundland. To the east, where the Labrador Current influences, the tundra extends to 55-54°N.

Shrubby tundra extends north from the border of broadleaf and coniferous trees, dominated by such unpretentious plants as creeping heather, dwarf and polar birch, willow, alder, and low shrubs.

Because the tundra of North America is located in areas where the waters of the Arctic Ocean run deep into the land, there is a very confusing pattern of wind patterns, with frequent changes in direction and varying strength. Therefore, the geography of distribution of tundra plants is extremely complicated. Since this area is similar to forest tundra and taiga in many respects, it is not surprising that all of a sudden, for a traveler, low and bent in all directions vegetation in the open areas is suddenly replaced by tall trees in the river valleys and at the foot of the mountains.

However, as one moves north, the predominance of true tundra with mosses, lichen, sedges, and cotton-grass becomes more and more noticeable, and the tree masses disappear for good.

The peculiarity of the North American tundra is the wide spread of the Arctic landscape – low, flat and swampy coastal plains. Vegetation here is sparse, with a short vegetative period, and is represented mainly by mosses and lichens. It does not form an even cover and often sows cracks in the soil, formed due to severe frosts. Where ice and earth are intermixed, ice wedges and frost bumps, nicknamed pingos in Sulphur America, form.

The climate of the North American tundra is very harsh. The wind here gathers extreme strength, blowing snow into the lowlands, where snow drifts form that persist even in the summer. It is because of the lack of snow on the plains that the soil freezes and does not have time to warm up in the short summer. For the most part, the climate of the Arctic tundra is wetter and wetter than that of the circumpolar tundra, which extends from American Alaska eastward all the way to Quebec, Canada.

Separately, the tundra of northwestern North America, the Alaska Range and the St. Elias Mountains, are distinguished. This ecoregion includes the mountains of interior Alaska, permanently covered with ice and snow. Those rare areas that remain free of ice are rocky, rugged, and high-altitude tundra.

The occupations of local people on the tundra of both North America and Eurasia are similar. They are reindeer breeding (the Arctic tundras become vast reindeer pastures in the summer season), hunting sea animals (under quotas from the Ministry of Natural Resources), and fishing. Crafts include bone carving and sewing clothes and shoes from reindeer skins. There are no major cities in the North American tundra.

Flora and Fauna

The animal life of the North American tundra is much richer in species composition than the vegetation. Major mammals include the caribou, brown bear, polar wolf, polar weasel, polar bear, and musk ox; small animals include the fox, arctic fox, lemming, and ermine; and birds include the white goose, black goose, white and tundra partridge, Alaskan plantain (a bird of the fescue family) and the snowy owl; of marine mammals – seal, walrus, narwhal, beluga whale, bowhead whale. In the rivers there are a lot of fish: lake trout, whitefish, grayling.

But very little of the flora and fauna of the North American tundra is unique to these places. It took experts a long time to figure it out. For example, at the beginning of the study of North American animals, caribou and Eurasian reindeer were considered different species (today two subspecies of caribou are distinguished in America – tundra and forest ones), and together with them – American and Eurasian elk. Later studies of species movement along the Bering Isthmus which once connected North America and Eurasia showed that all these species were related or even identical.

Examples abound. The gray marmot, a typical resident of the American mountain tundras, is a sibling of the mountain-tundra Siberian black-tailed marmot. The long-tailed marmot, a resident of the American tundras, also lives in Siberia. The musk ox might be called a “Native American” if one did not know that it disappeared from the tundras of Eurasia during the time of primitive humans, who mercilessly decimated the animal’s population.

In general, most American tundra endemics are represented by relatively young species that have only recently separated from their closest relatives of the same genus.

Quite unique to the tundra of North America is the distribution of some bird species arriving here only during the summer months: among such species arriving on the Labrador Peninsula there are even several species of tropical hummingbirds, Juncos (a genus of passerine birds from the family of Bunting, typical only for North America), savanna bunting (found only rarely in the tundras of Chukotka), Canadian goose (the most common species of game birds here).

The more northern the fauna is, the poorer and the more its life is connected with the sea: these are both the rock guillemots and gulls nesting on the rocks, and the pinnipeds and polar bears. A rare guest from the depths of the southern tundra is the Arctic fox and the Snow Bunting.

The greatest threat to the tundra of North America comes from oil and gas pipelines, hydrocarbon development, and global warming.

The problems associated with tundra pollution are largely similar across the tundra because of the nature of the minerals being mined, stored, and transported there. In spite of the strictest control and multimillion fines for oil pipelines leakages, the pollution continues, reindeer refuse to use special passages, and trucks tear off with their caterpillars the upper protective layer of tundra soil, which takes almost a hundred years to restore.

General Information

  • Location: North America.
  • Administrative affiliation: U.S., Canada.
  • Languages: English, Eskimo.
  • Ethnic composition: whites, African Americans, indigenous peoples (Eskimos, Atapasca, Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian Indians).
  • Religions: Christianity (Protestantism), traditional religions.
  • Currency: Canadian dollar, U.S. dollar.
  • Major rivers: the Mackenzie, Anderson, and Horton (Canada).
  • The area of North American tundra: more than 5 million km2.

Climate and weather

  • Sharp continental to arctic.
  • Average temperature in January: up to -30°C.
  • Average July temperature: +5 to +10°C.
  • Average annual rainfall: 200-400 mm.
  • Relative humidity: 70%.


  • Minerals: oil, natural gas.
  • Industries: oil refining, petrochemical, food industry (meat and dairy, flour milling).
  • Sea ports.
  • Agriculture: animal breeding (deer breeding).
  • Hunting and fishery.
  • Traditional crafts: bone carving, clothing manufacture from red deer and arctic fox skins.
  • Sphere of services: tourist, transport, trade.


  • Natural: Gates-of-the-Arctic National Park and Preserve (Alaska, USA), Kobuk Valley National Park (Alaska, USA), Wapus and Yuccusailik National Parks (Hudson Bay, Canada), Gros Morne National Park (Newfoundland Island, Canada), Torngat Mountains National Park (Labrador Peninsula, Canada).

Fun Facts

  • The tundra plant Labrador tea has red leaves to use chlorophyll and solar heat to keep it warm internally. None of the tundra animals eat it.
  • The North American tundra receives less rainfall in a year than the Mojave Desert.
  • The Mackenzie River was discovered and first traversed by Scottish traveler Alexander Mackenzie in 1789. Its original name was Disappointment, which literally means “disappointment.” By giving the river such a strange name, Mackenzie was expressing his own frustration that it led him not to the Pacific Ocean but to the Arctic Ocean.
  • The term “pingo” as a typically North American term for a knoll first appeared in 1938, borrowed from the Eskimos by the Danish-Canadian botanist Alf Porslig.
  • The easiest way to get deep into the North American tundra is to drive the highway along the Trans-Alaska pipeline, which runs from Barlow to the Pacific port of Valdez and poses the greatest threat to North American tundra ecology

Main characteristics of the tundra of North America

  • Geography: The tundra of North America covers a vast expanse, including the Arctic Ocean coast, interior Alaska and northern regions of Canada such as the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
  • Climate: The tundra of North America is characterized by a cold climate with long winters and short cool summers. Winters are cold, with temperatures dropping below -30°C, and summer temperatures rarely rise above +10°C.
  • Vegetation: The tundra vegetation of North America consists mostly of low-growing shrubs, mosses, lichens, and some grasses. Trees are virtually non-existent due to unfavorable climatic conditions such as low temperatures, short growing season, and permafrost.
  • Soils: North American tundra soils are generally poorly fertile and poorly developed due to short microbial activity and limited decomposition of organic material. Topsoil is often frozen and composed of permafrost, making it difficult for plants to grow.
  • Animal life: The animal life of the tundra of North America is adapted to the harsh conditions. Species such as polar bears, caribou (reindeer), tundra wolves, foxes, brown bears, polar foxes, snow geese, and many other species are found here. Many of them have special adaptations, such as thick fur or small size, to survive in the cold tundra conditions.
  • Seasonal Migrations: The tundra of North America is the site of seasonal migrations for many species such as caribou, elk, snow geese, and others that move south to warmer areas during the winter.
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