Tundra ecosystems are treeless regions found in the Arctic and on the tops of mountains, where the climate is cold and windy, and rainfall is scant. Tundra lands are covered with snow for much of the year, but summer brings bursts of wildflowers.
The Arctic's permafrost, the literal foundation for much of the region's unique ecosystem, is deteriorating with the warmer global climate. Permafrost is a layer of frozen soil and dead plants that extends some 1,476 feet (450 meters) below the surface. In much of the Arctic, it is frozen year-round. In the southern regions of the Arctic, the surface layer above the permafrost melts during the summer, and this forms bogs and shallow lakes that invite an explosion of animal life. Insects swarm around the bogs, and millions of migrating birds come to feed on them.
Effects of Global Warming
Another major concern is that the melting of the permafrost is contributing to global warming. The frozen ground contains about one and a half times the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere today, as well as large amounts of methane, another potent greenhouse gas. Until recently, the tundra acted as a carbon sink and captured huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as part of photosynthesis. That process helped keep the amount of this greenhouse gas from accumulating in the atmosphere.
Today, however, as the permafrost melts and dead plant material decomposes and releases greenhouse gases, the tundra has flipped from a carbon sink to a carbon contributor. That means not only is the planet less capable of preventing greenhouse gases from accumulating, but the tundra is also contributing to their buildup. Scientists are still learning about what else the permafrost harbors, and what could be released as it thaws.