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Science and Children >  > Alaska's Cold Desert > Poster 
Poster depicting the Alaska tundra in the late spring

This poster depicts the Alaska tundra in the late spring. As the snow melts, the region's flora and fauna becomes more viable and active. Purple monkshood, bog rosemary (red), and tundra rose (yellow) grow and flower, as do many varieties of moss and lichen (lower right). Often, plants in the nutrient poor soil benefit from the spot fertilization of animal droppings or the decayed remains of dead animals and plants. Tussocks of sedges and grasses, which tend to grow in clumps (center right), provide food and shelter for wildlife but create a tricky surface for people to traverse on foot.

Along the stream, wedges of ice cut into the permafrost below. These wedges form in cracks and grow slowly, helping to create the polygons of the patterned ground illustrated in the distance. Also visible at the top of the stream cut, and partially insulating the exposed permafrost, is a flap of vegetation and soil. It began to drape down toward the streambed after the soil supporting it was eroded by the stream. Ice is also responsible for another prominent feature of the tundra, the pingo (the hill on the far edge of the polygonal ground with red soils exposed). Essentially, an ice filled blister, a pingo can attain a height of more than 30 meters. Eventually the summit can rupture and thaw, creating a water filled crater lake or collapsing the structure altogether.

With warmer weather, patterns of animal life begin anew as caribou migrate, arctic foxes stalk ptarmigans, musk oxen gather in defensive circles to ward off hungry wolves, and lemmings emerge from snow burrows that are their winter homes. On a smaller but no less significant scale, swarms of insects take to the air, preying on animals and people alike.

The tundra's human population is sparse. Permanent settlements are few and far between, most being Inuit villages along the coast. Seasonal populations include scientists and naturalists. Transportation is difficult and often accomplished by light aircraft and helicopters. But, as indicated by the ancient arrowhead pictured, our ancestors traveled the area on foot, as long as 10-12 thousand years ago, hunting and making a life for themselves.

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Last updated: 11-13-2009