The word tundra comes from the Finnish word tunturi, meaning treeless plain. While trees seem non-existent on the tundra, a wealth of plant life grows in the cool, dry landscape. The plant life provides habitat, food and nesting grounds for a variety of wildlife and birds.
Tundra consists of two types: arctic and alpine. Arctic tundra encircles the North Pole and continues south until it meets the taiga forests. The arctic tundra features cold, desert-like conditions with the average growing season ranging from 50 to 60 days. Alpine tundra exists on top of mountains at high altitudes where the growing season lasts about 180 days.
During the growing season, the arctic tundra looks barren, but a closer look reveals plenty of plant life with about 1,700 kinds of plants growing on the thin layer of soil above the permafrost or permanently frozen ground. Four hundred varieties of flowers, including heath and cotton grass as well as low shrubs, sedges and grasses, make up the plant life. Lichens, liverworts and mosses make up the rest. On the alpine tundra, similar types of plant life grow, although the longer growing season and lack of a permafrost layers help plants grow to a larger size. Plants consist of grasses, dwarf trees, and small shrubs.
The cold climate of the arctic tundra creates challenging growing conditions that cause the plants to stay short but grow fast during the limited growing season. Little rainfall occurs, averaging less than 10 inches annually. Oftentimes, the rainfall and snow melt form bogs and ponds since the water cannot penetrate the permafrost. The water provides a valuable resource to plants such as sedges and willows that rely on the moisture to survive.
On the alpine tundra, temperatures typically drop below freezing, even in the summer, with only the hardiest of plants living and growing during the six-month growing season. Snow melt and rainfall provide just enough water to encourage plant growth in the well-drained soil.
Plants in the both types of tundra stay very short to better handle the strong winds. They also grow close together to fight cold temperatures and snow. . Lots of plants in the arctic tundra, including a plant called dark red, sport deep red leaves that help them absorb heat from the sun. Small trees do grow on the alpine tundra, but thanks to the fierce winds, the trees grow stunted, twisted trunks and branches in order to survive year after year.
A variety of wildlife in the arctic tundra relies on the small plants that thrive there. Lemmings and voles as well as hares and squirrels eat the plants, then provide food for larger animals such as snowy owls and foxes. Caribou also use the plants and lichens of the tundra as an important food source. Huge flocks of snow geese use the grassy tundra to build nests and raise their young. On the alpine tundra, upland game birds such as grouse rely on the small trees and shrubs for food. Larger animals such as mountain goats and elk also rely on the plants of the tundra.