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Human Uses of the Tundra

Updated April 17, 2017

The tundra regions of the Earth are characterised by low rainfall and either thin layers of soil over permafrost, or thin layers of soil over alpine karsts. This thin soil layer means that trees do not grow in the tundra, and as a result, the regions can be subject to high winds. Tundra regions exist on the North Slope of Alaska, Canada, Finland and Russia; much of the northernmost strip of land in Siberia is tundra. Alpine tundra exists in small patches around all of the mountains that are tall enough to have a "tree line" where trees cannot grow.

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Subsistence Hunting

For most of human history, the primary human use of the tundra has been subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering of plants. This lifestyle is still practised by the Inuit and Yu'pik native tribes in Alaska and across northern Canada, where nomadic or seminomadic tribes migrate across the tundra following the patterns of seal hunting and fishing for salmon, gathering nesting bird eggs, and caribou hunting. Similar subsistence hunting societies exist in Siberia and Finland, though the species they hunt varies from region to region.

Oil Exploration

The North Slope of Alaska, including Prudhoe Bay, lies in the tundra region. There is also ongoing oil and mineral exploration and exploitation going on in Siberia, and some motions to begin this process in Northern Canada, primarily for uranium. The ancillary effects of this type of use of the tundra include building larger communities than the native hunter-gatherers could support, and carving more roads out of the tundra.


In Alaska and Canada, the tundra region is also exploited for tourism -- people come there to take photographs, camp, fish for salmon, and hunt bear and caribou. Because of the lack of roads and the general inaccessibility in the wintertime, where temperatures routinely drop below minus-30 Fahrenheit, this use is limited to the long summer days of the tundra and done with float-equipped planes.

Habitat Erosion

Human impact on the tundra is changing the environment, from waste heat melting the permafrost under the soil, to oil spills and changes in drainage patterns from building roads in the area. Other impacts include long-term climate change. One concern is that a rise in global temperatures could easily release a lot of stored methane and carbon dioxide under the permafrost.

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About the Author

Ken Burnside has been writing freelance since 1990, contributing to publications as diverse as "Pyramid" and "Training & Simulations Journal." A Microsoft MVP in Excel, he holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alaska. He won the Origins Award for Attack Vector: Tactical, a board game about space combat.

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