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Study Notes

Glacial Landscapes - Characteristics of Cold Environments

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

There are four categories of cold environment: polar; glacial; periglacial and alpine.

The key features of each of these four categories of cold environment are summarised below.

Polar environments

  • Harsh environments covered in snow and ice.
  • Long winters and short summers.
  • Snow storms and cold winds for much of the year.
  • Difficult terrain and environments for plants, animals and people to live in.
  • Most of the land is ice covered. Where there is ice free land, soils are thin and infertile. They lack nitrogen and carbon due to low rates of decomposition. The vegetation is therefore limited. Mostly mosses and lichens grow there as they are able to survive in this harsh environment.
  • Animal life is limited too. The creatures which live in polar areas have adapted to the climate. More life is ocean-based than land-based.

Glacial environments

  • Cold climates, in higher latitudes or high altitudes.
  • High precipitation provides inputs to the glacial system.
  • Vegetation and animals, as per description under polar and alpine depending upon where the glacier is located.

Periglacial environments

  • They are located mainly on the fringes of glaciated areas.
  • Vegetation and animals are as described in polar and alpine. Vegetation increases here where meltwater is available and soil depth is sufficient to support growth. Much of the land is permafrost which limits plant growth to mosses, lichens and small shrubs of birch and willow. Soils of peaty undecomposed vegetation and frost-shattered rock are deeper. They may be in a condition of being permanently frozen (permafrost) or subject to seasonal thawing and re-freezing. The methane and carbon dioxide potential of these soils has considerable implications in the forecasting of global temperatures in the coming decades.

Alpine environments

  • Cool climates which have some snow coverage but not necessarily all year round.
  • Seasonal change is evident in alpine areas.
  • Windward sides of mountains receive large amounts of precipitation; with snow in winter months. Leeward sides are drier and are protected from strong winds.
  • Difficult terrain for animals, plants and people due to steep gradients. During winter months, snow cover makes the terrain even harder to navigate.
  • Even when the land isn’t ice covered, the soil is very thin and gravel like. Low decomposition rates lead to the soil being very infertile. Low lying shrubs and mosses and lichens thrive at the highest altitude. Alpine areas have coniferous trees which have adapted to the snowy environment. Their triangular shape allows for snow to fall off and the seeds are held within cones to protect against the cold.
  • Animal life is restricted. Creatures have adapted. The mammals include mountain goats which are expert at dealing with the steep terrain, limited grazing and cold temperatures.

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