Characteristics of cold environments - polar and tundra

Cold environments (both polar and tundra) are found in high latitude areas and mountainous regions of the world. They have an extreme climate and unique characteristics such as the soil type and the plants and animals found there. The biodiversity in cold environments is relatively low because very few species survive there.

Exploring the characteristics of cold environments and the threats that these areas face


Characteristics of polar areas include:

  • Climate - long cold winters, with annual temperatures mostly below freezing. Polar areas are often windy, with very little precipitation. Permanent ice caps cover polar landscapes.
  • Soil - the soil is covered in ice throughout the year.
  • Plants - hundreds of species of moss, algae and lichen survive the harsh conditions of the Polar biome. Few other plants can survive.
  • Animals - Polar bears live in the Arctic and penguins live in the Antarctic. Whales, seals and snowy owls are also found in polar regions.
Ice sheet covered with snow in Antarctica
Antarctica is a polar environment


Characteristics of the tundra include:

  • Climate - cold, windy and little rainfall. Snow covers the ground for much of the year. Average temperature in the Arctic tundra is between -12°C and -6°C. The summer season lasts for 50-60 days each year during which there is permanent daylight.
  • Permafrost - this is the layer of frozen soil under the Earth's surface. The frozen ground may extend as deep as 450 m. In the highest latitudes the ground remains frozen all year round. In the most southern parts of the Arctic, the surface layer of the permafrost melts in the summer.
  • Soil - this is high in organic material because it is too cold for dead organisms to decompose.
  • Plants - trees do not grow in the tundra. When the snow melts, small plants flower. In mountainous areas, cushion plants grow between the rocks.
  • Animals - arctic foxes, polar bears, grey wolves, caribou, snow geese and musk-oxen are found here. In mountainous areas, goats, sheep and marmots can be found. When the surface layer of the permafrost melts in the summer, shallow lakes and bogs appear which attract insects, birds and other wildlife.
A tundra pond
A tundra pond in the summer months - surface snows melt, forming a freshwater pond