secondary research - BOREAL + TAIGA forests
The taiga, which is also known as the boreal (meaning northern) forest region, occupies about 17 percent of Earth’s land surface area in a circumpolar belt of the far Northern Hemisphere. Northward beyond this limit, the taiga merges into the circumpolar tundra. The taiga is characterized predominantly by a limited number of conifer species—i.e., pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), larch (Larix), fir (Abies)—and to a lesser degree by some deciduous genera such as birch (Betula) and poplar (Populus). These trees reach the highest latitudes of any trees on Earth. Plants and animals in the taiga are adapted to short growing seasons of long days that vary from cool to warm. Winters are long and very cold, the days are short, and a persistent snowpack is the norm. The taiga biomes of North America and Eurasia display a number of similarities, even sharing some plant and animal species.
A stand of birch trees and conifers in the taiga of the West Siberian Plain, near Nizhnevartovsk, Russia (photo by N. Gyngazov).
In contrast to Canada’s northern forest, biodiversity is low in the Scandinavian boreal, owing to the cold climate and forced migrations in the post-glacial period. It is also scarce in its frontier old-growth forests, unlike either Canada’s and Russia’s boreal. Scandinavia only retains about five percent of its original boreal forest, but it has a long history of sustainable forestry.
Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark introduced legislation about a century ago that limited the harvest and required regeneration efforts in the interests of high timber production. Since this time, forest resources have doubled in Scandinavia and ecological incentives for sustainability have become more important. The Scandinavian countries also invest some $26 million dollars in forest management research each year, mostly for improving sustainable forest production, but also for alternative forestry methods and the preservation of biodiversity.
Contrary to Scandinavia’s strict control on its natural resources, Russia - home to 22 percent of the world’s forests - shows a distinct lack of forestry law enforcement. The state forest management systems are outdated in many areas and still estimate the allowable annual cut according to Soviet era calculations. These estimates exclude both thinnings and the requirements of new forestry laws adopted in the past decade. Environmental impact assessments are often done by unregulated and unmonitored non-governmental organizations.
Lappis in Stockholm, Sweden (photo by Jacqueline Rano).
The boreal forest is Canada’s largest vegetation zone, making up 55 per cent of the country’s land mass. It extends from the Yukon and northern British Columbia in the west to Newfoundland and Labrador in the east. Although the zone includes varied terrain, including lakes and wetlands, the majority of the region is dominated by trees. The area houses a diverse group of wildlife, and is crucial to maintaining biological diversity, storing carbon, purifying air and water, and regulating the climate. With over 2.5 million Canadians living in the boreal zone, the forest also provides these rural communities with jobs and economic stability.
Bordered to the north by treeless arctic tundra and to the south by temperate forest or grassland, the zone includes three ecologically distinct subzones: the northern boreal woodland, the main boreal forest, and the southern boreal forest. The northern woodland is characterized by widely spaced coniferous trees, hardy low shrubs, and sun-loving lichens. The main boreal forest includes closely spaced evergreen and deciduous trees, as well as shade-tolerant shrubs with herbs and feathermoss carpets beneath them. Finally, the southern part of the region is similar to the main forest but contains the occasional temperate deciduous tree and other plant species. The evergreen trees that dominate the region are black and white spruce, jack and lodgepole pine, and balsam fir, while the deciduous trees include American larch, paper birch, trembling aspen, and balsam poplar.
There are also two transitional subzones: hemi-arctic forest tundra—a mosaic of taiga and tundra vegetation along the northern margin—and mosaics of boreal and temperate vegetation along the southern margin. This southern subzone is defined by hemi-boreal aspen parkland in the west and northern conifer-hardwood forest in the east.
Until 12,000 years ago, most of today’s boreal forest was covered by glaciers. Because of this, much of the region’s topography and surficial geology results from glaciation, and most of its soils are young compared with those in unglaciated areas. In terms of the forest’s boundaries, global warming and cooling have historically caused the area’s north–south limits to shift up or down depending on temperature.
Treed and treeless wetland networks occur in poorly drained areas. They are usually composed of fens, acidic peat bogs, and nutrient-rich marshes underlain by varying amounts of organic material. These marshes are extensive in some regions, such as the Hudson Bay lowlands. Permafrost occurs in small patches in the southern half of the zone, but is virtually continuous over wide areas of the northern half.
Prominent mammals in the forest include moose, caribou, black bear, wolf, beaver, muskrat, varying hare, red squirrel, deer mouse, and red-backed vole. The region is also home to half of Canada’s 425 bird species, including Canada goose, common loon, great blue heron, numerous hawks, owls and ducks, ruffed and spruce grouse, belted kingfisher, gray jay, robin and other thrushes, black-capped and boreal chickadees, several nuthatches, vireos and grosbeaks, as well as many species of warblers and sparrows. Justly infamous insects include mosquitoes, black flies, and sand flies.
The boreal forest experiences more fire than the other, more temperate forests in Canada. Lightning- and human-induced fires burn vast areas of its highly flammable coniferous forest during dry summers, but most of its plant species are adapted to survive fires or to recolonize burn areas quickly. In fact, these fires are crucial to the forest’s existence, as they release nutrients found in waste on the forest floor, open the canopy to sunlight, and allow some plant species to reproduce by opening pinecones and freeing seeds. There is a predictable succession of post-fire vegetation, often beginning with fireweed; passing through an equally short-lived willow stage; a longer open-sun forest stage dominated by aspen, pine or birch; and ending with a shaded, spruce-fir forest, which persists until the next fire. These post-fire successional sequences are frequently interrupted by another fire, and hence the forest returns to the fireweed stage well before the final stage is reached.
Some climatologists predict that global warming will force the boreal forest and its associated industries to migrate northward very rapidly in the third millennium, surrendering much of their present range to temperate forest and arid grassland vegetation.
This boreal plains region of Cameron Hills, Alberta is characterized by an abundance of black spruce (photo by Cleve Wershler).
30 Fascinating Facts about the Boreal Forest
The Boreal forest is the world's largest land-based biome. Spreading over continents and covering many countries, the Boreal plays a significant role in the planet's biodiversity and even its climate. Here are 30 facts you want to know about this incredible space.
1. The Boreal Forest is named after Boreas, the Greek god of the North wind.
2. The biome is known as boreal in Canada, but is also known as taiga, a Russian word. Taiga is most commonly used to refer to the biome's more barren northern locations while boreal is used for the more temperate, southern area (we're just using boreal for ease).
3. The boreal covers most of inland Canada and Alaska, most of Sweden, Finland and inland Norway, much of Russia, and the northern parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Japan.
4. The boreal represents 29% of the world's forest cover.
5. While typically low on biodiversity, the boreal around the globe supports a range of animals. Canada's boreal forest is home to 85 species of mammals, 130 species of fish, some 32,000 species of insects, and 300 species of birds.
6. Of the 300 bird species that call Canada's boreal forest home during the summer, only 30 stay through the winter.
7. The boreal is COLD. The lowest recorded temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere were recorded in the boreal (or taiga) of northeastern Russia. It can easily get as cold as -65°F in the northern areas during winter.
8. The zone of latitude occupied by the boreal forest has seen some of the most dramatic temperature increases, especially in winter and especially during the last quarter of the 20th century.
9. The warming trend threatens to transform the boreal forest area into grassland, parkland or temperate forest, introducing a significant shift in species of both plants and animals.
10. The boreal forest stores enormous quantities of carbon, possibly more than the temperate and tropical forests combined, much of it in peatland.
11. To date, only 12% of boreal forest is protected around the globe -- and over 30% has already been designated for logging, energy and other development.
12. The Canadian boreal emerged with the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, with coniferous tree species migrating north. The forest as we know it today in terms of biodiversity took shape about 5,000 years ago -- a very short time ago in geological time scale.
13. Threatened and endangered wildlife within the Canadian boreal forest includes such iconic species as the woodland caribou, grizzly bear, and wolverine. Habitat loss from logging is a primary reason for the decline of these species.
14. Many animal and plant species inhabit both Asia's and North America's boreal forest, thanks to the Bering land bridge that once connected the two continents.
15. While some of the iconic animals living in boreal forests are very familiar, including wolves, bears, Arctic fox and muskox, it might be surprising to remember that the Siberian Tiger also calls the Taiga home.
16. The great gray owl, North America's largest owl, is a year-round resident of Canada's boreal. What would a cold, coniferous forest be without a big, grey owl?
17. Wildfires are an important part of the reproductive cycle for some species. Depending on the area, large fires occur in a cycle repeating anywhere from 70 to 200 years.
18. The trees of the boreal forest tend to have shallow roots, due to the thin soils.
19. The soils of the boreal forest are often acidic, due to falling pine needles, and low on nutrients since the cold temperatures do not allow much foliage to rot and turn into dirt.
20. There is little rainfall in the boreal biome. Precipitation comes in the form of fog and snow, with a little rain during the summer months.
21. Outbreaks forest-destroying plagues have come in the form of spruce-bark beetles, aspen-leaf miners, larch sawflies, spruce budworms, and spruce coneworms -- all of which have been worsening in recent years due in large part to the warming of the average temperature.
22. There are two major types of boreal forest -- the closed canopy forest in the South which has the longest, warmest growing season of the biome, and the high boreal forest with farther-spaced trees and lichen groundcover.
23. Logging has played its role on the boreal forest, with large swaths of Siberia's taiga harvested for lumber after the fall of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile in Canada, logging companies are under constraints, yet many still practice clearcutting, a strategy that is harsh on the forest ecosystem.
24. Most companies harvesting timber in Canada are certified by third parties, such as the Forest Stewardship Council. You will often see "FSC certified" on products made from sustainably harvested wood.
25. Last year, an historic agreement among 20 major timber companies and 9 environmental groups brought about a plan to protect 170 million acres of boreal forest in Canada. It was named the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement.
26. Canada still has 91% of the forest cover that existed at the beginning of European settlement. Conversely, only 5% of the boreal in Scandinavia remains.
27. The largest area of wetlands in any ecosystem of the world is found in the Canadian boreal region, containing more lakes and rivers than any similarly sized landmass on earth!
28. The word "boreal" might be most familiar because of the phenomenon aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, which is a natural light display seen in high latitudes.
29. The aurora borealis was named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas, by Pierre Gassendi in 1621. However, the Cree call this phenomenon the "Dance of the Spirits".
30. While the aurora borealis can cause changes in temperature and wind inside and near the aurora, none of these disturbances reach down to where the weather takes place and so it does not impact any of the boreal, or taiga, over which it occurs.