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What is a Tundra?
Reptiles, like this iguana, are not found in cold regions like the tundra.

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.

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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Why is hibernation a useful strategy during the winter for mammals living in the tundra?
It allows them to avoid the period when it's dark and they can't see to hunt
It allows them to survive during a period when food is limited and weather conditions extreme
The hibernation period is when the animals are pregnant and it would be dangerous to hunt
Mammals need sunlight to warm up of a morning, so their only choice is to hibernate
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
Why does soil take so long to form on the tundra?
The snow destroys the soil and as it melts it washes away what has formed
The cold conditions mean that bacterial and fungal action is slowed, so it takes much longer for things to break down
There is plenty of soil but it's all locked up in the form of permafrost
There are no animals or plants to die or leave waste to decompose
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
What is the definition of a tundra?
Any area of forest in the Artic Circle
Any desert that receives annual snowfall
The ecosystem commonly found on high mountains and valleys. The cold conditions preclude tree growth, leaving the area treeless
A vast, flat, treeless Arctic or mountainous region in which the subsoil is permanently frozen
The word tundra comes from an early European word for treeless mountain tract, or uplands
Why do flowers bloom rapidly in the Artic summer?
Due to migration during this period there are no grazing animals to eat the flowers
Summer is the only time of the year when there is available water for the plants to use
Summer is the only time of year when animals are around to eat the seeds
Summer is very short
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
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?
They will thrive as the conditions improve
Species such as the red fox can move north and out-compete the Arctic fox
The change in climate will kill the Artic fox the second temperatures rise above a critical number
Melting Artic Ice will leave nowhere for the fox to live
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
Why are ecosystems such as the tundra often compared to deserts?
Yearly precipitation is between 15-25 cm per year on average
The lack of species in the area
The low levels of human population in the area
Underneath the snow the terrain is the same as in a desert
Deserts are defined by the amount of average rainfall. Both deserts and tundra have low levels of precipitation
Why can’t most reptiles survive the conditions in the tundra?
Reptiles are ectotherms, meaning that they get the heat they need for functions from outside, by basking. Getting warm in the tundra is difficult
There are too many predators in the tundra that can eat reptiles whilst they are warming up in the morning
Reptiles never evolved on continents that have a tundra
Reptiles are endothermic, meaning that they generate their own body heat and give it off rapidly. In the cold of the tundra they would lose body heat too fast
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
Which of these is not a way mammals such as the Artic fox have adapted to life in the extreme conditions of a tundra?
A layer of insulating fat
Small ears and limbs
A black coat to absorb more heat from the sun
A thick coat to trap the warmth
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
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?
Massively increase global climate change
Slow global climate changes
It's not clear what this release of greenhouse gases will do
Increase pollution and global dimming
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
What causes the largest population oscillations of animal numbers in the tundra?
Many animals die off each winter and young are born the following spring
Lack of food during the winter months causes many animals to die
Seasonal migrations affect numbers as animals leave for the winter and return the following spring
Seasonal hunting by indigenous populations affects animal numbers
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
Author:  Ruth M

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