Difference Between Taiga & Tundra

By Jon Zamboni; Updated April 24, 2017
Taiga landscape in autumn

Tundra and taiga are the two coldest land biomes on the planet. Together they make up the majority of Canada, Scandinavia, Alaska and northern Russia. But the two biomes are quite different due to their relative precipitation, and the presence of the tundra's permafrost. These two factors cause sharp differences between the plant life of the two biomes, and the resulting local animal populations.

Temperature and Permafrost

Permafrost at Scoresby Sound, Greenland

One of the major ways in which taiga and tundra differ is in temperature. Over the course of a year, temperature in the taiga averages between 5 degrees Celsius and negative 5 degrees Celsius. Water freezes at zero degrees Celsius. In the tundra, this average temperature is below negative 5 degrees Celsius. As you go north, there are fewer warm days per year, and permafrost begins to develop. Permafrost is soil that is frozen year round, and is one of the defining characteristics of the tundra. In taiga, the soil may freeze during winter, but the summer months are warm enough for the soil to thaw.

Annual Precipitation

Snow in the Yukon Territory, Canada

Another major difference between taiga and tundra is precipitation. While there is frost and ice in the tundra, there is very little precipitation, less than 4 inches per year. In contrast, the taiga sees precipitation, mostly in the form of snowfall, which can total over 80 inches a year. This means that the taiga is a wet biome with plenty of available moisture; in some places the climate is boggy. In contrast, the tundra is close to being a desert; the soil is frozen and dry.

Differences in Plant Life

Cedar pine in a taiga landscape

The most striking visual difference between taiga and tundra is the presence of trees. The taiga is covered by a thick forest of conifers such as pine and spruce, while in the tundra trees are absent completely. This is due in part to the lack of water available in the tundra, but also is a result of permafrost. Trees have great difficulty growing stable roots in frozen ground. While both tundra and taiga have lichens and mosses, many grasses and wildflowers grow in the tundra that are less common in the taiga. The soil in the taiga is highly acidic and low in nitrogen, making growth difficult for plants that are not adapted to the environment. Plants in the taiga bear more in common with those found in swamps and bogs than in temperate forests, and include shrubs such as blueberries and carnivorous plants like the pitcher plant.

The Animals of the North

Polar bear on a tundra

Animal life in both taiga and tundra is dominated by mammals and birds. Species of foxes, bears, wolves, hares and rodents are common to both biomes. However, the specific species vary between taiga and tundra -- for instance, moose and deer are found in taiga, while reindeer are more common in tundra. Tundra is home to the polar bear, taiga to the grizzly. Bird species also vary between the two biomes. In the taiga, fly- and nut-eating songbirds such as jays and woodpeckers share the trees with carnivorous owls that eat small mammals. In contrast, the birds of the tundra are largely migratory sea-birds, such as terns, loons and gulls.

About the Author

Jon Zamboni began writing professionally in 2010. He has previously written for The Spiritual Herald, an urban health care and religious issues newspaper based in New York City, and online music magazine eBurban. Zamboni has a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from Wesleyan University.