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Polar habitats

What are polar habitats?

Polar habitats are located at the very top and very bottom of the Earth. They are cold, windy and have a lot of snow and ice. It’s even too cold for trees to grow.

Tundra takes up a lot of the area of polar habitats. It’s the only place where any plants can grow, but the ground only thaws just enough for short grasses and moss – tree roots can’t go as far down into the ground as they need to because it’s frozen. Animals who live in polar regions have adapted by having thick fur or feathers, and hunting fish or each other rather than relying on plants for food.

Top 10 facts

  1. Polar habitats are located in the very north and very south of the globe – the two pole ends of the Earth.
  2. The northern polar region is called the Arctic, and in the south the polar region is the continent of Antarctica.
  3. Polar habitats have just two seasons – summer and winter (but even summer is normally very cold). In the summer, it is light for 24 hours a day (right at the north and south Poles, the sun doesn’t set for six whole months when it is summer) and in the winter it is dark for 24 hours a day.
  4. Polar habitats have tundra, which is ground that is nearly always frozen. The very top of it will thaw in the summer months so grasses and mosses can grow, but there isn’t enough room for tree roots in the non-frozen soil.
  5. Because it is too cold for trees to grow in arctic habitats, animals find other places to live such as holes in the ground, or in caves made from snow.
  6. Animals in the arctic also can’t rely too much on eating plants. Most are carnivores (they eat meat) and hunt for fish as well as smaller animals.
  7. Polar habitats get very, very cold – it can get as cold as -50°C in the Arctic, and temperatures in Antarctica have been as cold as -89°C.
  8. Animals in polar regions have adapted to survive in these extreme conditions. They have thick fur or feathers, blend in with the white snow, or hibernate during the coldest winter months.
  9. The mass of ice at the very tip of the north and south Poles is called the polar ice cap. It is always frozen, although the size of the ice cap changes when bits on the edge of it melt during the summer months.
  10. Global warming is changing polar habitats, especially in the Arctic. This means that animals like the polar bear and Arctic fox are becoming endangered.

Did you know?

  • Polar habitats are located on the very top and very bottom of the Earth – the North Pole, which is called the Arctic, and the South Pole, which is the continent of Antarctica.
  • The Arctic includes parts of eight countries – Canada, the United States, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia
  • Some parts of polar regions are always frozen, all year round. These are called ice caps, and they are located in the very centre of the Arctic and Antarctica.
  • Tundra is land that only defrosts a tiny bit on the top during the summer, but below that stays frozen all the time. That always-frozen layer is called permafrost.
  • It’s extremely cold in the polar habitats. Arctic tundra can be -12°C to -6°C, and it can get much colder than that further up the ice cap – as low as -50°C! In Antarctica, temperatures can be less than -90°C.
  • Just like animals in hot deserts have to know how to stay as cool as possible, animals in polar habitats have to know how to stay as warm as possible.
  • Some ways that animals in polar habitats stay warm are:
    • Developing a thick layer of fat that keeps them cosy
    • Having thick fur all over their body and feet
    • Having thick layers of feathers
    • Burrowing into the ground or into snowbanks (like igloos! )
    • Migrating south during the coldest months
    • Hibernating (sleeping) during the coldest months

Look at the gallery below and see if you can spot these images:

  • Snowy owl
  • Polar bear
  • Caribou
  • Pika
  • Elk
  • Arctic fox
  • Muskox
  • Walrus
  • Beluga whales
  • Orca



There’s another kind of tundra on the top of very tall mountains – this is called alpine tundra. The ground isn’t always frozen there, so small shrubs can grow as well as grasses and moss.

Plants and vegetation in tundra includes:

  • Moss
  • Lichen
  • Grass
  • Small flowers

Animals and fish that you’ll find in arctic habitats include:

  • Arctic fox
  • Arctic hare
  • Beluga whale
  • Caribou
  • Elk
  • Lemming
  • Polar bear
  • Pika
  • Marmot
  • Muskox
  • Reindeer
  • Snowy owl
  • Walrus

Animals you’ll find in Antarctica include:

  • Albatross
  • Krill (food for sea animals)
  • Orca
  • Penguins
  • Seals

Insects in the Arctic habitat include:

  • Arctic bumble bees
  • Flies
  • Grasshoppers
  • Mosquitoes
  • Moths

The rising temperatures on the Earth due to global warming mean that it’s changing the climate and terrain of polar habitats. Conditions that animals are used to and have adapted to are changing, which is making it more difficult for them to survive. For example, polar bears are an endangered species because the ice in the Arctic is melting – they rely on ice to get around.

Words to know:

Hibernation – a deep sleep that animals take during cold months; they don’t need to eat much or to be too warm, so hibernating helps them survive times when it’s very, very cold in the winter
Iceberg – a big lump of ice that has broken off from the polar ice cap and floated away; Icebergs are very dangerous for ships
Ice shelf/ice sheet – a thick layer of ice on top of land
Tundra – a region without any trees, and where subsoil is always frozen (the soil below topsoil); topsoil will defrost just enough for lichen, moss and some grasses to grow
Pack ice – areas where there are lots of bits of ice floating in the ocean; you get this when the edges of the polar ice cap melt in the summer
Permafrost – soil that is always frozen; tundra has a layer of permafrost underneath it
Polar ice cap – an area in the very middle of the North and South Poles that is always frozen; it ‘caps’ the top and bottom of the Earth
Sea ice – an area around the poles where the sea has frozen solid; the edges melt in the summer and freeze again in the winter

Related Videos

Just for fun...

Books about polar habitats for children


Find out more

Watch a BBC Bitesize video about polar habitats

Read about what life is like in Antarctica

Compare the Poles

Information about the polar zones for children

Watch a BBC video to see how animals have adapted to live in the polar biome

Kids' guides to the Arctic and frozen deserts from DK FindOut!

Explore a wide range of objects from Antarctica in short films from the Scott Polar Research Institute

The Arctic information

The tundra biome explained

Animals that live in Arctic tundra habitats

Information about polar bears from National Geographic Kids

Read about foodwebs and ecosystems in Antarctica

See for yourself

Visit the Polar Worlds galleries at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich

See lots of pictures of icebergs and find out more about them

Watch clips from the BBC documentary, Frozen Planet

Photographs of NASA engineer Tia Ferguson's science mission to Antarctica

Also see

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