The tundra biome is a vast but fragile ecosystem. It locks away carbon and is critically important to world climate but is highly susceptible to damage from human activities. The Arctic tundra encircles the North Pole above latitude 60 degrees, covering parts of Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Russia, Scandinavia and Siberia. With average temperatures around minus-30 F in winter and 37 to 50 F in summer, only a boggy few inches of the frozen soil (permafrost) thaw enough to sustain shallow-rooted vegetation during the six- to eight-week growing season. Further south, Alpine tundra exists above the tree line in any mountainous area, but longer summers prevent permafrost. Ice sheets limit the extent of tundra in Antarctica.
International teams of scientists visit the tundra to study its geology, biology and climate. Tundra science casts light on how the Earth formed, how it functions and how climate change affects it. For example, biologists investigate how species adapt to survive tundra conditions. Saving their habitat is essential to preserving genetic diversity, which enables the world to cope with environmental change.
By analyzing samples of frozen soil, scientists can trace the area's prehistory and predict how thawing the permafrost would increase global warming by releasing gases such as methane. Melting ice also raises sea levels, affecting coastal communities and changing the ocean circulation that governs climate.
To experience wilderness conditions firsthand, consider hiking or kayaking tours in the national parks, or learn about tundra inhabitants at wildlife centers or on photo or cultural tours. Look for the thousands of birds returning each summer, including snow bunting, ravens and terns, and animal residents such as wolves, lemmings and polar bears. In winter, skiing and dog-sledding are popular by day, aurora-watching by night. Ecotourism can be enlightening and challenging. However, it needs careful planning and control because of potential damage from developing infrastructure such as highways, hotels and waste disposal systems.
Oil, Gas and Mineral Exploitation
People need fuel, and oil drilling is big business. However, exploring, drilling and mining in the tundra destroy the permafrost, causing geological instability and releasing methane from stored carbon. Oil spills, dust, leached minerals and gas emissions poison the water, vegetation and all the animals that feed on them, which ultimately includes human tundra dwellers. Pipelines can hinder foraging or migration; industrial noise drives animals away; and laying service roads compresses and cuts up the ground.
Hunting, Fishing and Farming
Sportfishing abounds and is encouraged in the Alaskan tundra. Hunting and grazing must be controlled to keep species in healthy numbers and preserve biodiversity. Subsistence hunting and fishing by people never has unbalanced the animal population, but game hunting has depleted species, including musk ox and caribou, in the past, and is now carefully regulated through licensing. Herding sheep and goats is a traditional summer occupation in the Alpine tundra. Reindeer and caribou herding is a way of life for Arctic peoples like the Inuit, Sami and Nenets. In nomadic traditions, the herders migrate with their animals between tundra and coastal areas. Berries and herbs supplement the diet of tundra dwellers in summer, but the season is too short for growing food crops.