Scientists Say: Tundra | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Tundra

This northern ecosystem has an icy cold underlayer
Sep 5, 2016 — 7:00 am EST

The tundra is home to many grasses, mosses and even tiny trees. The willow tree in the foreground is less than one meter (a yard) tall.

B. Brookshire/SSP

Tundra (noun, “TUN-drah”)

This is an ecosystem found in Earth’s far north, such as upper Alaska, Canada and Siberia. In these regions, winters can be long, cold and dark. The tundra does not have tall trees, only grasses and shrubs. Beneath the tundra, large sections of the soil remain frozen all year round — creating something called permafrost. But in summer, the tilt of the planet means that the days become very long. In fact, the sun doesn’t set for weeks. During that time, the long light and warmer temperatures mean that the top layer of the soil thaws, allowing plants to grow. Those plants feed animals from migrating birds to caribou.

In a sentence

Mosquitoes love life on the tundra — and climate change means they are getting bigger than ever.

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

birds     Warm-blooded animals with wings that first showed up during the time of the dinosaurs. Birds are jacketed in feathers and produce young from the eggs they deposit in some sort of nest. Most birds fly, but throughout history there have been the occasional species that don’t.

climate     The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

ecosystem     A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra.

permafrost     Soil that remains frozen for at least two consecutive years. Such conditions typically occur in polar climates, where average annual temperatures remain close to or below freezing.

planet     A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and it must have cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, it must be big enough to pull neighboring objects into the planet itself or to sling-shot them around the planet and off into outer space. Astronomers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created this three-part scientific definition of a planet in August 2006 to determine Pluto’s status. Based on that definition, IAU ruled that Pluto did not qualify. The solar system now includes eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

shrub     A perennial plant that grows in a generally low, bushy form.

Siberia     A region in northern Asia, almost all of which falls within Russia. This land takes its name from the language of the Tatar people, where Siber means sleeping land. This region is vast. It has become famous for its long, harsh winters, where temperatures can fall to −68° Celsius (−90° Fahrenheit).

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Or a sunlike star.

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.