Vegetation Zones


Vegetation zones frontpicture

In the following, a tutorial is provided which shows how to assess vegetation types. There are nine vegetation types which are subsequently described in detail and represented with maps, illustrating pictures and pictures of common plant species. The classification and distribution of the vegetation types follows two systems:

    • Bioclimatic subzones in the Circumpolar Arctic, developed by the Panarctic Flora (PAF) initiative and the Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map (CAVM) project.
    • Global Ecological zones (GEZ) spatial dataset developed by the Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Vegetation Zone Key 320x212Download Vegetation Zone Key here.

GTN-P also provides maps of the Arctic or Antarctic Vegetation Zones.


Vegetation Types

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Polar Desert

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polardesert3 polardesert4


Polar deserts comprise 8.5% of the Earth's land surface, thereof only 0.1% being in the Arctic and 8.4% in Antarctica. 

Polar deserts are characterized by their very high/very low latitude location and a precipitation amount below 250 mm per year. Polar desert landscapes comprise exposed bedrock, talus or rocky plains. The length of the growing season is two and one half months at maximum. Permafrost is generally present. Temperatures of polar deserts commonly oscillate around 0°C, producing patterned textures on the ground resulting from freeze-thaw cycles.

In the Arctic polar desert, approximately 1-5% of the ground is covered by lichens, mosses, and vascular plants (which typically have cushion or rosette growth).


    • Antarctica
    • Great parts of Svalbard
    • Northern Greenland
    • North Russia: Novaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, Severnaya Zemlya, and the Northern part of Taymyr peninsula
    • North Canada: Parts of the Arctic Archipelago

Polar Desert Arctic SMALL

Extension of the Arctic Polar Desert comprising 0.1% of the Earth's land surface.

Polar Desert Antarctic SMALL

Extension of the Antarctic Polar Desert comprising 8.4% of the Earth's land surface.

Common/typical plant species:

Plants growing as cushions or rosettes as well as grasses, i.e.:

 Potentilla hyparctica Saxifraga oppositifolia Deschampsia berigensis Puccinella capillaris

 Arctic cinquefoil

(Potentilla hyparctica)

 Purple mountain saxifrage

(Saxifraga oppositifolia)


(Deschampsia ssp.)


(Puccinellia ssp.)

 Diverse crustose and foliose lichen species, i.e.:

 Caluplaca alkarum  Cetraria islandica Lecanora contractula

Orange lichen 

(Caloplaca ssp.)

 Cetraria lichen

(Cetraria ssp.)

 Rim lichen

(Lecanora ssp.)

 Diverse moss species, i.e.:

 Bryum imbricatum Schistium

 Bryum moss

(Bryum ssp.)

 Schistium moss

(Schistium ssp.)

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tundra1 tundra2
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The tundra zone comprises 2.3% of the Earth's land surface and is largely constricted to the Northern hemisphere.

In general, the term tundra applies to a range of low-growing vegetations beyond the cold limit of tree growth. Tundras occur both at high latitude (Arctic tundra) and at high elevation (alpine tundra). The annual average temperature typically does not exceed 5°C. The vegetation of the tundra is composed of herbaceous plants, low shrubs, mosses, and lichens.

However, in our system you can choose between three types of tundra: Tundra, shrub tundra, and forest tundra. Here, "tundra" applies to vegetation types where plants do not extend 40 cm in height. Dominant plant growth forms are prostrate to erect dwarf shrubs (not extending 40 cm in height), sedges, mosses, and lichens. Peats are often present.


    • Coast of Greenland
    • Coast of Svalbard
    • Great parts of North Siberia
    • North Alaska
    • Great parts of the Arctic archipelago, Canada

Tundra Boreholes Active Layer Map SMALL 

Extension of the Tundra zone comprising 2.3% of the Earth's land surface.

Common/typical plants:

Many flowering plants including prostrate shrubs and herbaceous plants, i.e.:

 Betula nana  Carex capitata  Cassiope Draba incana

Birch species, i.e. dwarf birch 

(Betula nana)


(Carex ssp.)

Cassiope species 

(Cassiope ssp.)

Whitlow grasses 

(Draba ssp.)

 Dryas octopetala  Empetrum nigrum Eriophorum angustifolium Luzula arcuata

Dryas species 

(Dryas octopetale)

Crowberry species 

(Empetrum nigrum)


(Eriophorum ssp.)

Woodrush species 

(Luzula ssp.)

 Pedicularis flammea  Phyllodoce caerulea  Salix arctica Vaccinum myrtillus 

Lousewort species 

(Pedicularis ssp.)

 Mountain heathers (Phyllodoce ssp.)

Willow species 

(Salix ssp.)

Vaccinium species 

(Vaccinum ssp.)

Moss species

Lichen species

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Shrub Tundra

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The Shrub Tundra zone comprises about 1.3% of the Earth's land surface and - like the tundra - has its main distribution in the Northern hemisphere.

In general, the shrub tundra resembles the tundra biome a lot but the distinctive feature is the dominance by low shrubs >40 cm tall. The shrub canopy is open or dense, and the ground vegetation consists of tussock sedges and mooses, depending on humidity and area. Often, shrub tundras are alongside watercourses where shrubs can reach a height of >2 m.  


    • Coast of East Greenland
    • Coast of North Iceland
    • North Norway
    • Great parts of North Siberia, below the tundra zone
    • Great parts of North and West Alaska
    • Great parts of North Canada

Shrub Tundra Boreholes Active Layer Map SMALL

 Extension of the Shrub Tundra zone comprising 1.3% of the Earth's land surface.

Common/typical plant species:

Shrubs, otherwise many species typical for the tundra zone, i.e.:

Betula pubescens Salix lanata Ledum palustre Oxycoccus microphyllum

 Birch species, i.e. mountain birch

(Betula pubescens)

 Willow species

(Salix ssp.)

 Labrador tea species

(Ledum palustre)

 Cranberry species

(Oxycoccus ssp.)

Rubus saxatilis Vaccinum myrtillus Empetrum nigrum

 Rubus species

(Rubus ssp.)

 Vaccinium species

(Vaccinium ssp.)

Crowberry species 

(Empetrum ssp.)

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Forest Tundra



foresttundra3 foresttundra4


The Forest Tundra zone comprises about 2.7% of Earth's land surface area.

The Forest Tundra is another name for the transitional zone between Tundra/Shrub Tundra and the Boreal Coniferous Forest. It can be described as the tundra into which the coniferous trees "merge into". The distinctive character between coniferous forests and forest tundras is that the tree cover is discontinuous and sparse. Much of the ground vegetation consists of mosses. Forest Tundras often extent into Shrub Tundra and Tundra biomes along riparian corridors (pertaining streamside environments).


    • North Russia (North Murmansk and great parts of North Siberia, below the shrub tundra zone)
    • Parts of Central Alaska
    • Great parts of North Canada

Forest Tundra Boreholes Active Layer Map SMALL

Extension of the Forest Tundra zone comprising 2.7% of the Earth's land surface.

Common/typical plant species:

Trees, otherwise species typical for the tundra zone:

Larix siberica Picea Pinus contarta Populus trichocarpa

 Larch species

(Larix siberica)

 Spruce species

(Picea ssp.)

 Pine species

(Pinus ssp.)

 Poplar species

(Populus ssp.)

Betula pubescens

 Birch species

(Betula ssp.)

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Coniferous Forest


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The coniferous forests of the Northern hemisphere comprise almost 15% of the Earth's land surface.

Continuous forests in which 76-100% of the canopy is composed of coniferous trees are termed coniferous forests. Conifers are trees which grow needles instead of leaves, and cones instead of flowers. These coniferous forests constitute almost 30 % of Earth's entire forests. They are expanded throughout the taiga biome, especially the Southern reach of the taiga. However, coniferous forests are not restricted to the taiga biome but are also frequent in alpine landscapes.


    • In the Northern boreal forest zone between 50° to 60°N latitudes
    • Temperature coniferous forests in lower latitudes and in high elevations of alpine landscapes.
    • Considerable portion of Russia (especially Siberia)
    • Northern Kazakhstan
    • Northern Mongolia
    • Hokkaido, Japan
    • Scandinavia
    • Interior Canada
    • Alaska


The map shows the extension of coniferous forests in the Northern hemisphere which consists of the boreal coniferous forest (red) and parts of boreal and temperal mountain systems (pink).

Coniferous Forest Boreholes Active Layer Map2 SMALL 

Extension of the Coniferous Forest zone comprising almost 15% of the Earth's land surface.

Common/typical plant species:

Dominance of needle trees, ground cover mostly consisting of mosses, ferns, and herbaceous plants.

Abies holophylla Manchurian Fir cones Picea Pinus contarta

 Fir species

(Abies ssp.)

 Spruce species

(Picea ssp.)

 Pine species

(Pinus ssp.)

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Deciduous Forest

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Deciduous Forests comprise almost 9% of the Earth's land surface.

Continuous forest in which 76-100% of the canopy is composed of deciduous trees are termed deciduous forests. "Deciduous" means "falling off at maturity" or "tending to fall off", and is typically used in reference to trees or shrubs which lose their leaves seasonally. The biome deciduous forest is not restricted to temperate deciduous forests. There are extended areas of deciduous forest in the taiga biome, especially at its Southern boundary and the transition zone to the Temperate Broadleaf Deciduous Forest.

Please note: Although a conifer, larch is a deciduous tree since it loses its leaves in the autumn.


    • Parts of Scandinavia and Scotland
    • Great parts of East Europe
    • Great parts of Central and South Russia, Kamchatka
    • East China
    • Great parts of Central Alaska and West Canada
    • Great parts of the Eastern U.S.A.

Deciduous Forest Boreholes Active Layer Map SMALL

Extension of the Deciduous Forest zone comprising almost 9% of the Earth's land surface.

Common/typical plant species (of the taiga biome dominated by deciduous forests):

Deciduous trees, species composition depending on the location of the deciduous forest. Ground cover comprising mosses and herbaceous plants.


Betula pubescens Salix lanata Larix siberica Populus trichocarpa

 Birch species

(Betula ssp.)

 Willow species

(Salix ssp.)

 Larch species

(Larix ssp.)

 Poplar species

(Populus ssp.)


Acer pseudoplatanus 002 Alnus glutinosa black alder Srobus aucuparia Quercus robur

 Maple species

(Acer ssp.)

 Alder species

(Alnus ssp.)

 Whitebeam species

(Sorbus ssp.)

 Oak species

(Quercus ssp.)

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grassland1 grassland2


Grasslands comprise almost 4% of the Earth's land surface.

Grasslands are generally open and continuous, fairly flat areas of grass. They are often located between temperature forests at high latitudes and deserts at subtropical latitutes. The grasses die back to their roots annually and the soil and the sod protect the roots and the new buds from the cold of winter or dry conditions. A few trees may be found in this biome along the streams, but not many due to the lack of rainfall.  


    • In the Northern hemisphere:
    • East China
    • Manchurian Grassland, Mongolia
    • Kazakhstan
    • South West Russia
    • North of the Black sea
    • Parts of Iran, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan


Grassland SMALL

Common/typical plant species:

Assorted samples of plant species from Mongolian grasslands:

Avena fatua Cleistogenes squarrosa Dalea purpurea Festuca lenensis 2

 Oat species

(Avena ssp.)

 Cleistogenes squarrosa


Dalea purpurea

 Festuca lenensis
Hordeum brevisubulatum Salvia deserta Stipia Triticum
 Hordeum brevisubulatum  Salvia deserta  Stipia ssp.

 Wheat species

(Triticum ssp.)

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No Vegetation


No vegetation. Often there are patches in alpine landscapes outside the Arctic/Antarctic zones or other landscapes lacking vegetation for diverse reasons, i.e. due to bedrock/soil nutrient poor or other unfavourable conditions which prevent plant growth. An example is great parts of interior Iceland.

Common/typical plant species:



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Other vegetation types to which the terms above do not apply.


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CAVM project. CAVM Team. 2003. Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map. Scale 1:7,500,000. Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Map No. 1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anchorage, Alaska.

Forest Resources Assessment Working Paper 179 (2012):
Global Ecological Zones For FAO Forest Reporting: 2010 Update

Global ecofloristic zones mapped by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization
Credits: FAO,2000. adapted by Ruesch,Aaron,and Holly K. Gibbs. 2008

The Encyclopedia of Earth


Picture sources:

Flora of Iceland. (Picture copyright by Hörður Kristinsson)

FloraGREIF - Virtual Flora of Mongolia ( Computer Centre of University of Greifswald, D-17487 Greifswald, Germany. [2/4/2014].

Toolik-Arctic Geobotanical Atlas. Alaska Geobotany Center, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, U.S.A.

Plantarium Russia.


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Strategy and Implementation Plan