Study Notes

GCSE Geography | What are Cold Environments Like? (Cold Environments 1)

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas

Last updated 4 Dec 2023

We can categorise cold environments into polar or tundra. The polar and tundra biomes are the regions surrounding the north and south poles, with average monthly temperatures that are always below freezing. Cold environments cover one quarter of the Earth’s land surface – they are found at high-latitudes where cold, sinking air generates freezing winds and sunlight is limited. In the Southern Hemisphere it is the continent of Antarctica, which is a landmass covered in ice and is home to the South Pole. In the Northern Hemisphere it is the northern most parts of Canada, Russia (Siberia), Norway, Sweden and Finland, as well as Greenland and Alaska - which surround the North Pole. The North Pole is made up of ice - so changes annually.


At the highest latitudes, the Sun does not even rise for several months of the year. A good example of this is Alert on the northeast coast of Ellesmere Island, Canada, which is the world’s darkest populated settlement. Located at 82 degrees north, its tiny handful of residents receive no sunlight for 50 days annually. The most extreme example is Antarctica – where it is less than 0°C for most of the year. Few people want to live in such extreme conditions.

Characteristics of the polar biome

The polar biome is found in inland areas, far from the warming influence of the sea. It includes Greenland, Northern Canada, Northern Russia (Siberia) and Antarctica. The average monthly temperature is always below freezing – and winter temperatures can fall to minus 50. This allows snow and ice to accumulate overtime so polar regions are partly or completely covered with ice caps. Overall there is very little precipitation (and what there is, is mainly snow), they receive similar precipitation totals as hot deserts. This is because cold air cannot hold much water vapour.

In polar regions the soils are permanently covered by ice so are permanently frozen. Some plants such as mosses and lichens are found on the fringes of the ice. There are few animal species at the poles – you will find polar bears in the Arctic region and penguins in Antarctica.

Polar regions present such a harsh environment that few permanent settlements are ever established, though these regions have been the focus of exploration. However, the people who do live in polar regions in traditional groups are known as indigenous people. These groups use their knowledge of the polar ecosystem to find the resources needed to survive. Some of these groups are nomadic, moving to find resources.

Characteristics of the tundra biome

The tundra biome is found south of the ice caps in the northern hemisphere, occupying around one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface, including enormous areas of Russia and Canada. These places lack permanent ice cover, but experience very cold weather for most of the year – dropping to minus 20 in winter. It is warmer and wetter than the polar biome.

Most of the ground is permanently frozen – known as permafrost, but this melts closer to the surface in summer. Deeper soils remain frozen all year round with the ice below the surface acting like an impermeable barrier - this prevents the melted water from infiltrating from the soil above, meaning that soil on the surface becomes waterlogged frequently. Soils have low fertility as there is little plant life and decomposition is slow in low temperatures, but also the water drains the nutrients quickly.

Tundra means treeless place in Finnish so this biome is mainly low-lying shrubs and mosses, such as saxifrage and bearberry. Because the environment is much less severe than the polar biome many species of animals live here, such as the Arctic fox, Arctic hare, musk ox, caribou, and Tundra wolf. Migratory birds are found here in the summer, as well as insects which thrive in the poorly-drained conditions when surface soils thaw.

Indigenous people also live in tundra regions, often supporting themselves by fishing. However, in tundra regions permanent settlements are being developed close to new developments such as oil fields, in order to benefit from the jobs created. Economic development could have a major impact in this fragile ecosystem.

What are Cold Environments Like | AQA GCSE Geography | Cold Environments 1

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