When you think of the dark, cold, mysterious forest that's so often used as a location in old folk tales, what you are imagining is a boreal forest. The boreal forest is also referred to as the snow forest or Taiga, a Russian word that means coniferous forest.
Boreal forests are only found in far northern latitudes and do not exist in the southern hemisphere. The climate of boreal forests is harsh and cold, with average annual temperatures ranging from approximately 23 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
These cold, mysterious forests are the subject of much folklore—from witches to gnomes to anthropomorphized animals. The diversity of the plant and animal species present adds a unique aspect to this beautiful yet harsh area of the world.
The boreal forest covers 12 million square kilometers around the earth. It is one of the largest biomes in the world, comprising about one-third of the planet’s forests.
A wide band of boreal forests right outside of the Arctic circle stretches over Canada, Russia, Alaska, and Scandinavia, typically between 50 and 60 degrees N. Boreal forests exist between the even harsher tundra of the far northern latitudes and the deciduous forests of the slightly more southern latitudes. 1
The climate of boreal forests is cold and harsh, with long, cold winters and cool, short summers. The growing season is short, with only 50 to 100 days a year free of frost. Although there is not a lot of precipitation throughout the year, the low temperatures and low evaporation rates mean that the land remains moist throughout the entire growing season.
During the winter months, the majority of precipitation comes in the form of snow. This acts as an insulant for the ground, keeping soil temperatures above freezing even when the air above ground is colder.
The climate of the boreal forest is harsh, and the soil is known for being very poor in nutrients. The soils in this type of forest are known as podzol , a term which comes from a Russian word that means "under ash." This refers to a grayish, nutrient-poor soil located under a layer of organic material.
This type of soil lacks the vital nutrients that are necessary for a wide diversity of plant growth and is a large reason why the majority of trees in boreal forests are coniferous. When pine needles fall from these trees, they slowly make the pH of the soil more acidic. Over time, the soil becomes too toxic for other plants to grow, allowing the conifers to completely take over an area.
Although conifers are the main type of tree found in boreal forests, they are not the only plant that has been able to thrive under these conditions. Deciduous trees, shrubs, mosses, and lichens have all managed to make the boreal forest their home.
The most common coniferous trees found in boreal forest are firs, pines, spruces, larches, and hemlocks. These trees shed snow easily, allowing the tree to thrive through the winter without damage from the weight. Their needles have a thin, waxy coating that resists frost and allows the tree to continue to photosynthesize on sunny days. The needles also help reduce water loss, preventing the tree from drying out.
Deciduous trees, such as aspen, can also be found in the boreal forest, but these trees shed their leaves before the long winter months. Their growing season is much shorter, allowing coniferous trees to take over most of the land. However, some deciduous trees require a large amount of water to thrive and end up taking over areas of the boreal forest that are simply too wet for conifers.
The highly acidic nature of the forest soil makes it unfavorable for plants to gather the proper nutrients for survival. Trees and shrubs of the Alder family have managed to thrive in the boreal forest by their use of bacteria-filled nodules located in their roots. This allows them to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into usable nutrients for themselves and the plants around them. 2
Even with the cold, harsh climate of this biome, many large and small animals have been able to successfully survive. Some migrate to warmer climates when the winter comes, while others have thick layers of fur to shield them from the cold.
The boreal forest is home to more than 85 species of mammals, including bison, moose, elk, caribou, black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves. Smaller mammals include hares, lynx, squirrels, beavers, and voles.
More than 300 species of birds call the boreal forest home for at least part of the year, even if it's just a small stop while traveling north or south. Birds such as woodpeckers, owls, and ravens have adapted in order to live in the boreal forest year-round. 3
Benefits of Boreal Forests
A large number of coniferous trees make boreal forests extremely therapeutic, as long as you don’t try to go for a stroll in the middle of winter. If you're lucky enough to take a walk through the taiga during one of the balmier months, you can benefit from the wide variety of terpenes released from conifers.
Many species of coniferous trees, such as Scotch pine, black spruce, and Douglas fir are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, as well as their ability to support the respiratory system. Shinrin-Yoku, also known as forest bathing, is a mindful walk through nature developed in Japan in order to provide individuals with a range of health benefits. The terpenes—aromatic plant compounds—found in coniferous forests make them a great location for this practice.
With the rise of large cities, many of the beneficial terpenes that human ancestors were exposed to on a daily basis are no longer part of everyday life, which has potentially resulted in widespread terpene deficiency. By participating in forest bathing, even in short bursts (such as a 15-minute stroll), you can expose yourself to these terpenes that the body requires to maintain or improve overall health.
Whenever you have the chance to visit a boreal forest, take a calming stroll along the trees. Breathe in the fresh scent of pine, and take some time to really appreciate the complicated ecosystem that makes this biome unique.
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