Arctic Grasses

As you look out at the Arctic tundra, it appears to be a smooth, flat meadow of grasses waving gently in the wind. Once you try to walk across it, however, you quickly realize just how wrong you were.

Arctic tundra

The northern slope of Alaska is covered with huge plains of arctic grasses.

The tundra is covered with small mounds of vegetation called tussocks. The tussocks, small bits of semi-solid ground, wobble when you walk on them, and it is often wet between them.Tussocks form when some kind of grass seed takes hold and grows in the wet swampy bog of the spring thaw. In the fall, the blades of grass freeze and die while the plant continues to live in the ground – just like the grass in your yard at home.

The following spring, the plant sends up more shoots in the middle of the old dead leaves from last summer.

That fall, the new blades of grass freeze and die, just like they did last summer.

The cycle continues. Each spring new shoots grow, each fall they freeze and die – just like the grass in your yard.

The difference here is that the old dead leaves don’t decompose. In most places dead organic matter like grasses and flowers would be broken down quickly by various small organisms and turned into soil.

In the Arctic tundra, however, the summer season is so short the organisms don’t have time to do their job. What would only take one year in most places to break down into soil can take many years in the far northern regions.

The tussocks then, are clumps made up of whatever new growth grew this year, the dead undecomposed leaves from prior years, and whatever soil the microorganisms have managed to make.

Arctic tundra

The flat tundra is covered by tussocks, or small bits of semi-solid ground.

Arctic tundra

In the arctic, old dead grasses don’t decompose like in other parts of the world.

Arctic tundra tussocks

The clumps of grass are wobbly and hard to walk on.


Arctic tundra flowers

Due to the harsh climate of the arctic, flowers are very small – but beautiful.


books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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