The Living World
21 Topics | 21 Quizzes

Characteristics and Distribution of Cold Environments

Cold environments are characterised by low temperatures, although there’s a large variation with some being permanently cold and others seasonally cold.

The primary factor behind what makes an environment cold is its latitude. Far northern and southern latitudes have exceptionally cold temperatures and permanent ice sheets. There are two main categories of cold environments:

  • Polar
  • Tundra


Found within the Arctic Circle and the Antarctic Circle (66.5° to 90° north and south).Found mainly in the northern hemisphere, in the regions just below the ice caps of the Arctic, between 60°N and polar ice caps.
Includes Antarctica and areas of the Arctic such as Greenland, Northern Russia, and Canada.Includes areas of northern Europe, Siberia, Asia and Northern America.
The soil is covered in ice all year round.No permanent ice cover, unlike Polar regions.
Long winters, with annual temperatures mainly staying below freezing, reaching -40°C and below in winter.Freezing temperatures most of the year round. The average temperature is between -12°C and -6°C, although it can reach 10°C in summer.
Less than 100 mm of precipitation per year and lots of wind, defining these areas as deserts.

Ice caps cover the landscape.
Low precipitation, less than 380 mm.
Contains some plants such as algae and moss, while warm coastal regions might see grass.Small plants can grow in these areas, whereas trees don’t. Grass, moss, and lichen are common, and flowers grow rapidly to attract insects during the short growing season.
Very low biodiversity. Polar Bears are in the Arctic and Penguins in the Antarctic, while other animals like whales, owls and seals are also found in polar biomes.Greater biodiversity than Polar regions, although still low. Arctic foxes, Polar bears, caribou, geese, sheep, goats and other varieties of animals survive in the environment.
Almost nobody lives in Polar environments. Scientists research in Antarctica on specially made bases for parts of the year, and there are Indigenous people living in some Arctic areas.Underneath the soil, there’s a layer of permafrost that may extend to 450 m below the Earth’s surface.
Summer: Features the phenomenon ‘midnight sun’, where the sun remains visible for 24 hours a day, providing continuous daylight.Summer: Experiences long daylight hours with the sun visible for most of the day and night, but not complete 24-hour daylight like the polar regions.
Winter: Features polar night, a period of extended darkness where the sun does not rise above the horizon. This can last for several months.Winter: Very short days and long nights, with limited sunlight and extended periods of twilight or darkness.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is iceberg-8179206_1280-1024x680.jpgThis image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is tundra-4641439_1280-1024x682.jpg

Landforms of Polar and Tundra environments


Found mainly in polar environments, such as in Canada and Greenland, glaciers are massive ice masses formed from compressed snow over centuries.

These glaciers constantly move under their own weight, shaping the landscape through processes like erosion and deposition. Their presence significantly affects local climate patterns by reflecting sunlight. Therefore, they maintain cooler temperatures in their vicinity.

Glaciers also act as freshwater reservoirs, releasing water slowly through melting, which is vital for the ecosystems downstream.

Ice Caps

Ice caps are vast coverings of ice over large areas in polar regions, and they play a vital role in the global climate. By reflecting a significant amount of the sun’s rays back into space, they help regulate Earth’s temperature, contributing to the overall cooling effect. This reflective quality is essential in controlling the rate of global warming.

However, the melting of ice caps contributes to rising sea levels, which poses a threat to coastal ecosystems and human settlements.


Mountains in both tundra and polar regions, often formed by the movement of glaciers, create unique microclimates and diverse habitats.

In tundra environments, alpine tundra biomes form near the mountaintops, supporting specially adapted flora and fauna. The varying altitudes of mountains result in different temperature and precipitation levels, leading to a variety of life forms at different heights.

Also, mountains can affect weather patterns, creating areas with no precipitation or areas with increased precipitation. This influences the distribution of plant and animal species in these regions.

You’ve used 0 of your 10 free revision notes for the month

Sign up to get unlimited access to revision notes, quizzes, audio lessons and more

Sign up