Ecology Tundra Biome
Bruce C. Forbes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0097


The tundra biome is the youngest on the planet, having developed its current structure and geography during the close of the Pleistocene glaciations roughly 10,000 years ago. Sources of the flora and fauna tend to be much older, with a large number of species deriving from the various mountain chains that ring the Arctic and stretch between the Far North and more temperate regions. During the middle Miocene (around 18–15 million years ago), coniferous and mixed coniferous-deciduous forests were present in the uplands of what is now Alaska. However, climatic cooling and drying at the end of the Miocene drove remnants of the deciduous Arcto-Tertiary forest southward, leaving a relatively depauperate biota in the North, characterized by the coniferous boreal forest that spread across Beringia. The modern biome is characterized by strong gradients in temperature, precipitation, and insolation, which can vary significantly locally and regionally due to elevation, aspect, and distance from the sea. Taken together, tundras and polar deserts exist as a relatively narrow strip of land around the margins of the Arctic Ocean. The Low Arctic consists of mostly closed tundra vegetation types and can extend as far south as about 58° N latitude along Hudson Bay in Canada. The polar deserts and semidesert of the High Arctic comprise cold, dry habitats with sparse vegetation cover and low vascular plant and animal species diversity. Pronounced diversity among lichens and bryophytes and extremely high similarity among circumpolar plant and animal species are coupled with predictive overall impoverishment and reduced productivity as one moves progressively north. Together these factors contribute to the concept of the tundra biome that is terrestrially disparate yet biotically united. In recent decades, scientific and public attention has focused on the perceived sensitivity of the biome to climate change and various forms of anthropogenic disturbance, such as extensive oil and gas development.

General Overviews

Since the territory comprising the Arctic is shared among eight nations spread across two large continents and several islands, classic works are characteristically divided among different scientific traditions with varying perspectives and emphases. Intriguingly, many of the citations in the History and Vascular Floras and Atlases sections treating the North American Arctic were written by Europeans such as Hultén (Swedish), Porsild (Danish) and Polunin (British). Due to language issues and the Cold War, key Russian works, such as Chernov 1985, did not begin to appear in English until the waning years of the Soviet Union. Porsild 1951 provided one of the first and best scholarly overviews of the tundra biome available to the general public. Ives and Barry 1974 upped the ante by delivering a comprehensive, high-quality volume lumping arctic and alpine systems together, a concept that was then in vogue but soon to be abandoned (see Billings 1999, cited under Defining the Tundra Biome). Bliss, et al. 1981 was the final word on the tundra biome component of the International Biological Programme (henceforth IBP), which lasted from 1963 to 1974. It was the state of the art for the time in basic science, providing quantitative data on plant and animal productivity from representative sites across the biome. Wielgolaski 1997 built on the IBP by making use of another decade of data from many of the same IBP authors, while also giving ample space to cover the Russian Arctic, which had previously been largely unknown to the English-speaking world. Program for the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna 2001 is a more modern treatment, albeit with less detail, employing high-quality color photos, maps, and fully referenced boxes on a wide range of topics.

  • Bliss, Lawrence C., O. William Heal, and John J. Moore, eds. 1981. Tundra ecosystems: A comparative analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An impressive compilation of basic biological and ecological information, such as primary production, by the International Biological Programme (IBP), resulting from a genuine international effort via sites all around the circumpolar north from the subarctic to the High Arctic.

  • Chernov, Yuri I. 1985. The living tundra. Translated by Doris Löve. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    English translation of the classic overview of plant and animal distributions, adaptations, and interactions in the Arctic portions of the (then) Soviet Union, originally published as Zhiznʹ tundry (Moscow: Myslʹ, 1980).

  • Ives, Jack D. and Roger G. Barry, eds. 1974. Arctic and alpine environments. London: Methuen.

    A comprehensive overview, considered definitive at the time, as the first regional and synthesis IBP volumes (see Bliss, et al. 1981) were not yet published. In addition to the basic biological and physical aspects, this book speculated about applied topics (anthropogenic disturbance) and the importance of humans in the arctic system.

  • Porsild, A. Erling. 1951. Plant life in the Arctic. Canadian Geographic Journal 42:120–145.

    A short but excellent chronicle of common arctic plant species and habitats in plain, accessible language, written by one of the masters on the topic, that is still useful for the entry-level student more than sixty years later.

  • Program for the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna. 2001. Arctic flora and fauna: Status and conservation. Helsinki: Edita.

    A thorough introduction to basic flora, fauna, and humans in the Arctic aimed at nonexperts. Short contributions from hundreds of experts that were right up to date when first published.

  • Wielgolaski, Frans-Emil. ed. 1997. Ecosystems of the world. Vol. 3, Polar and alpine tundra. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    An edited volume covering all sectors of the circumpolar north, plus some alpine regions, which updates and expands upon the material collected during the IBP. Well produced, with several lengthy and outstanding contributions.

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