Tundra is the marshy, treeless plain that has low-growing vegetation and permanently frozen subsoil (permafrost). It is the northernmost of the five primary natural zones of Russia. Much of the Arctic is too cold for trees to grow. Much of the landscape is covered by a treeless, marshy plain, with a carpet of plants, called “tundra”, that spreads for as far as the eye can see in many places and is undisturbed except for streaks of snow, pools of water and rock piles. Most tundra areas lies within the Arctic Circle. Some lie in mountainous areas.

About 10 percent of Russia is tundra. The tundra is Russia's northernmost zone, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, then running south along the Pacific coast to the northern Kamchatka Peninsula. The zone is known for its herds of wild reindeer, for so-called white nights (dusk at midnight, dawn shortly thereafter) in summer, and for days of total darkness in winter. The long, harsh winters and lack of sunshine allow only mosses, lichens, and dwarf willows and shrubs to sprout low above the barren permafrost. Although several powerful Siberian rivers traverse this zone as they flow northward to the Arctic Ocean, partial and intermittent thawing hamper drainage of the numerous lakes, ponds, and swamps of the tundra. Frost weathering is the most important physical process here, gradually shaping a landscape that was severely modified by glaciation in the last ice age. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Tundra regions sometimes receive less rain than a desert, but because there is hardly any evaporation and seepage is inhibited by the permafrost the land is spongy and soggy. And even though the growing season is very short, plant foods can become quite large by growing for many hours a day under the midnight sun.

Less than 1 percent of Russia's population lives in the tundra zone. The fishing and port industries of the northwestern Kola Peninsula and the huge oil and gas fields of northwestern Siberia are the largest employers in the tundra. With a population of 180,000, the industrial frontier city of Noril'sk is second in population to Murmansk among Russia's settlements above the Arctic Circle. *

Global warming has affected the tundra is is expected to affect it more in the future. By some estimates 15 percent of the Arctic tundra gas disappeared since the 1970s. Summer warming has reduced the number of days in which the tundra is hard enough to be driven on or drilled into.

Arctic Plants

Sedges, grasses, scrub willows, birch, juniper, cloudberries, cranberries, blueberries, lichens, mosses and fungi are the plants best adapted for growing in the tundra. These provide enough food to support large numbers of hares, mice, squirrels, voles, waterfowl, migratory birds—and with them, insects, including lots and lots of mosquitos. The main large animals living in the tundra are reindeer, musk oxen and bears. Trees that grow in the tundra are stunted dwarfs. The permafrost doesn’t allow trees to send down deep roots.

Common Arctic plants include stunted heather, willows, saxifrages, cotton grass and poppies. During the short Arctic summers there are ample supplies of sun, liquid warmth and sun warmth—which all plants need to survive. Dirt and minerals, which plants also need, are in short supply because rocks are not usually weathered into soil. The richest source of nutrients comes from animals and plants that die in the Arctic. Often large groups of plants can be found growing from the remains of a dead musk ox or fox.

Plants can not grow without light. Plants and animals that live in the Arctic are able to survive the dark, cold winter by reducing their life processes to a minimum and concentrating most of their activity in the short summer months, often 24 hours day. Because there so few seed- and pollen-carrying insects and small birds, many Arctic plants rely on the wind to disperse their pollens and seeds.

Unusual plants found in the Arctic including the Arctic poppy and willowherb, with flowers that bloom briefly in the short Arctic summer; the Arctic willow, a type of willow that crawls on the ground and rises no more tan a couple inches off the ground but may grow as large on the ground as a willow tree climb vertically. Seeds from lupin, an Arctic plant, can remain in the permafrost for as much as ten thousand years and be brought to life.

Lichens and Mosses

Lichens and mosses are among the most common forms of life in the tundra. Lichens are fungi-algae partnerships. They resemble single plants but they are components of fungi that can dissolve minerals that can be consumed by algae, with the algae producing starches and sugars that can be consumed by the fungi. Lichens often attach themselves to rocks that are slowly broken down with an acid to provide the algae with nutrients which in turn provides the fungi with nutrients. In this way lichen can thrive in harsh environment where few other living organisms can survive.

There are 20,000 different kinds of lichen. Some have brilliantly colored skins: red, yellow, blue, green and even black. Hanging mosses found in temperate rain forest are in fact lichens. Lichens grow up to 18,000 feet in the Himalayas and are one of the few living things that grow in the Antarctic and the islands in the Arctic. In the tundra they grow in massive ankle-deep carpets.

Mosses are filaments or small flowerless green plant which lacks true roots, growing in low carpets or rounded cushions in damp habitats and reproducing by means of spores released from stalked capsules. Mosses lack rigidity and often pack themselves together to form cushiony surfaces.

Mosses and liverworts (allies of mosses) practice two kinds of reproduction: sexual and asexual, in alternative generations. Green moss produces sex cells. Each large eggs remains attached to the stem at the top. The microscopic sperm are released into the water and wriggle their way to the egg to fertilize it. The egg then germinates while still attached to the parent plant to produce the next asexual generation: a thin stem with a hollow capsule at the top.

Mosses produces spores in small capsules at the top of their stem. When they are ready to releases a lid springs on the top to reveal a ring of teeth covering a mouth beneath it. If the weather is warm and dry the teeth dry out and curl backwards, opening the capsule and allowing the spores to blow away. If the weather is wet, the spores could become waterlogged and not carry far. To prevent this from happening the teeth reabsorb moisture and shut the capsule.

Reindeer moss is common in the taiga and tundra. Also known as reindeer lichen moss and caribou moss, it is not a moss. Rather it is a light-colored, fruticose lichen belonging to the Cladoniaceae family. It grows in both hot and cold climates in well-drained, open environments. Found primarily in areas of alpine tundra, it is extremely cold-hardy. As the names suggest, reindeer lichen is an important food for reindeer (caribou). Reindeer lichen, like many lichens, is slow growing (3–5 mm per year) and may take decades to return once overgrazed, burned, trampled, or otherwise consumed.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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