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Tundra vs. Desert: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on December 9, 2023
Tundra is a cold, treeless biome with a frozen subsoil, found in Arctic regions, whereas a desert is a dry, barren area of land, often sandy, with little rainfall and sparse vegetation.

Key Differences

The tundra is known for its extremely cold climate with low temperatures, while deserts are characterized by hot or cold climates but with extreme temperature variations between day and night.
Tundras receive low precipitation, similar to deserts, but the cold climate keeps the moisture from evaporating, leading to wetter conditions. Deserts are defined by their lack of rainfall, resulting in arid conditions.
Tundra supports limited vegetation like mosses, lichens, and small shrubs, adapted to the cold. Desert vegetation, if present, is adapted to drought, like cacti in hot deserts.
The soil in tundra regions is permanently frozen (permafrost), hindering the growth of deep-root plants. Desert soils, on the other hand, are often sandy or rocky with little organic material.
Human habitation is sparse in both due to extreme conditions, but tundra regions are less hospitable due to the severe cold.

Comparison Chart


Extremely cold, with a short growing season
Hot or cold with extreme daily temperature variations


Low but with moisture retention due to cold
Very low, leading to arid conditions


Mosses, lichens, small shrubs
Sparse, often drought-resistant like cacti


Permafrost, frozen subsoil
Sandy, rocky, low in organic material

Human Habitation

Limited due to harsh conditions
Sparse, adapted to arid environments

Tundra and Desert Definitions


Characterized by short growing seasons and low biodiversity.
Plants in the tundra have adapted to brief summer seasons.


An arid, barren area of land with little precipitation and vegetation.
The Sahara is one of the largest deserts in the world.


Features permafrost, limiting deep-rooted plant growth.
Permafrost in the tundra impacts the types of plants that can grow.


Hosts specialized flora and fauna adapted to dry conditions.
Cacti are common plants found in many hot deserts.


A cold, treeless biome with a permanently frozen subsoil.
The Arctic tundra is home to a unique set of wildlife.


Often features sandy or rocky terrain with sparse vegetation.
The landscape of a desert is often shaped by wind and sand.


Found in high latitudes and altitudes around the Arctic.
The tundra landscape is dominated by low-lying vegetation.


Characterized by extreme temperature fluctuations.
Desert days can be scorching, while nights are often cold.


Hosts unique fauna adapted to its harsh environment.
Caribou are well-suited to the harsh conditions of the tundra.


Can be hot, like subtropical deserts, or cold.
The Gobi Desert is an example of a cold desert.


A treeless area beyond the timberline in high-latitude regions, having a permanently frozen subsoil and supporting low-growing vegetation such as lichens, mosses, and shrubs.


A dry, often sandy region of little rainfall, extreme temperatures, and sparse vegetation.


A similar area found at high elevations.


A region of permanent cold that is largely or entirely devoid of life.


A flat and treeless Arctic biome.


One of the level or undulating treeless plains characteristic of northern arctic regions in both hemispheres; the term is most commony associated with the arctic plains of Siberia. The tundras mark the limit of arborescent vegetation; they consist of black mucky soil with a permanently frozen subsoil, but support a dense growth of mosses and lichens, and dwarf herbs and shrubs, often showy-flowered.


A vast treeless plain in the arctic regions between the ice cap and the tree line


Can trees grow in the tundra?

Trees cannot grow in the tundra due to the cold and permafrost.

What is a tundra?

A cold, treeless region with a permanently frozen subsoil.

What defines a desert?

A dry, barren area with little rain and sparse vegetation.

What causes deserts to form?

Factors like low rainfall, high evaporation, and climate patterns.

How do desert animals conserve water?

They have adaptations like nocturnal habits and water-efficient metabolisms.

Are deserts always hot?

No, deserts can be hot or cold, like the Antarctic desert.

Can people live in deserts?

Yes, people live in deserts, often adapting to the arid conditions.

What is permafrost?

Permafrost is permanently frozen ground found in the tundra.

What animals live in the tundra?

Animals like caribou, arctic foxes, and polar bears live in the tundra.

What plants are common in deserts?

Cacti, succulents, and other drought-resistant plants are common.

How much rain does the tundra get?

Tundras receive low precipitation, often less than 10 inches annually.

What is the largest tundra in the world?

The Arctic tundra is the largest.

Are desert environments expanding?

Yes, some deserts are expanding due to climate change and desertification.

Is agriculture possible in the tundra?

The harsh conditions make agriculture challenging in the tundra.

Do deserts have seasons?

Some deserts experience seasonal variations, but they're usually subtle.

Do rivers exist in deserts?

Some deserts have rivers, often seasonal or fed by external sources.

Is global warming affecting the tundra?

Yes, global warming is causing permafrost melting and ecosystem changes.

How do tundra animals survive the cold?

They have adaptations like thick fur and fat layers.

Are there lakes in the tundra?

Yes, there are many lakes and ponds in the tundra during summer.

What is the biggest desert on Earth?

The Sahara Desert is the largest hot desert.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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