Climate Classification

What is the difference between arctic and alpine tundra?
Answered by HowStuffWorks
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  1. The short answer is that one goes north and the other goes up. Both arctic and alpine tundra are rather flat, treeless regions synonymous with rugged, unforgiving landscapes. As the name implies, arctic tundra is found in the Arctic. It ranges from the northernmost reaches of Europe to northern Asia and the top of North America between the Arctic Ocean and the biome of coniferous trees called taiga. On the other hand, Alpine tundra is found at high altitudes worldwide. In addition to the differences in location, arctic tundra is characterized by a layer of permafrost. That's not too surprising when you consider that the average temperature for this region is well below the freezing point. This layer of solid, frozen earth is seldom found in alpine tundra. In the summer, when temperatures might reach 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, bogs develop in the arctic tundra because underground permafrost keeps surface water from draining.

    The alpine tundra is located high in the mountains between the timber line and snow line. Alpine tundra has some marsh areas, but in general the region drains well. Since alpine tundra regions are created by altitude, not latitude, they can be found in many different places around the world. In North America, portions of the Rockies qualify as alpine tundra. Rocky Mountain National Park's tundra zone starts between 11,000 and 11,500 feet; that's more than two miles above sea level [source: NPS].

    Despite the cold weather and the harsh conditions, tundras support a surprising amount of wildlife. The Arctic region hosts many predators such as foxes, polar bears, caribou, and wolves that roam the area. During the warmer months, flowers push upward for a brief but beautiful display of color. Alpine tundras support many animals that you might more easily associate with mountainous regions, like goats, sheep, and fowl [source: National Geographic]. Both areas also support cold-hearty but very fragile plant life that is at risk due to climate change. And some scientists fear that melting permafrost in the arctic tundra grounds could release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere [source: Discovery News].

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