Alpine tundra is a type of natural region or biome that does not contain trees because it is at high elevation. As the latitude of a location approaches the poles, the threshold elevation for alpine tundra gets lower until it reaches sea level, and alpine tundra merges with polar tundra.
Alpine tundra occurs in mountains worldwide. The flora of the alpine tundra is characterized by dwarf shrubs close to the ground. The cold climate of the alpine tundra is caused by adiabatic cooling of air, and is similar to polar climate.
Alpine tundra occupies high-mountain summits, slopes, and ridges above timberline. Aspect plays a role as well; the treeline often occurs at higher elevations on warmer equator-facing slopes. Because the alpine zone is present only on mountains, much of the landscape is rugged and broken, with rocky, snowcapped peaks, cliffs, and talus slopes, but also contains areas of gently rolling to almost flat topography.
Typical high-elevation growing seasons range from 45 to 90 days, with average summer temperatures near 10 └C (50 └F). Growing season temperatures frequently fall below freezing, and frost occurs throughout the growing season in many areas. Precipitation occurs mainly as winter snow, but soil water availability is highly variable with season, location, and topography. For example, snowfields commonly accumulate on the lee sides of ridges while ridgelines may remain nearly snow free due to redistribution by wind. Some alpine habitats may be up to 70% snow free in winter. High winds are common in alpine ecosystems, and can cause significant soil erosion and be physically and physiologically detrimental to plants. Also, wind coupled with high solar radiation can promote extremely high rates of evaporation and transpiration.
Because the habitat of alpine vegetation is subject to intense radiation, wind, cold, snow, and ice, it grows close to the ground and consists mainly of perennial grasses, sedges, and forbs. Perennial herbs (including grasses, sedges, and low woody or semi-woody shrubs) dominate the alpine landscape; they have much more root and rhizome biomass than that of shoots, leaves, and flowers. The roots and rhizomes not only function in water and nutrient absorption but also play a very important role in over-winter carbohydrate storage. Annual plants are rare in this ecosystem and usually are only a few inches tall, with weak root systems. Other common plant life-forms include prostrate shrubs, graminoids forming tussocks, cushion plants, and cryptogams, such as bryophytes and lichens.
Plants have adapted to the harsh alpine environment. Cushion plants, looking like ground-hugging clumps of moss, escape the strong winds blowing a few inches above them. Many flowering plants of the alpine tundra have dense hairs on stems and leaves to provide wind protection or red-colored pigments capable of converting the sun's light rays into heat. Some plants take two or more years to form flower buds, which survive the winter below the surface and then open and produce fruit with seeds in the few weeks of summer.
Alpine meadows form where sediments from the weathering of rocks has produced soils well-developed enough to support grasses and sedges. Non-flowering lichens cling to rocks and soil. Their enclosed algal cells can photosynthesize at any temperature above 0 └C (32 └F), and the outer fungal layers can absorb more than their own weight in water. The adaptations for survival of drying winds and cold may make tundra vegetation seem very hardy, but in some respects the tundra is very fragile. Repeated footsteps often destroy tundra plants, allowing exposed soil to blow away; recovery may take hundreds of years.
Because alpine tundra is located in various widely separated regions of the Earth, there is no animal species common to all areas of alpine tundra. Some animals of alpine tundra environments include the kea, marmot, mountain goat, Bighorn sheep, chinchilla, Himalayan tahr, yak and pika.