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Related subjects: Climate and the Weather

Background Information

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The taiga is found throughout the high northern latitudes, between the tundra, and the temperate forest, mostly from 52°N to 66°N, but with considerable regional variation and reaching 70°N in some areas.

Taiga (pronounced /ˈtaɪɡə/, Russian: тайга́; from Turkic or Mongolian), also known as the boreal forest, is a biome characterized by coniferous forests. Covering most of inland Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Finland, inland Norway, some parts of the Scottish Highlands and Russia (especially Siberia), as well as parts of the extreme northern continental United States (northern Minnesota, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, northern Wisconsin, Upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine), northern Kazakhstan, northern Mongolia, and northern Japan ( Hokkaidō), the taiga is the world's largest terrestrial biome.

The term boreal forest is sometimes, particularly in Canada, used to refer to the more southerly part of the biome, while the term taiga then often is used to describe only the more barren areas of the northernmost part of the taiga approaching the tree line.

Since North America and Asia used to be connected by the Bering land bridge, a number of animal and plant species (more animals than plants) were able to colonize both continents and are distributed throughout the taiga biome (see Circumboreal Region). Others differ regionally, typically with each genus having several distinct species, each occupying different regions of the taiga. Taigas also have some small-leaved deciduous trees like birch, alder, willow, and aspen; mostly in areas escaping the most extreme winter cold. However, the Dahurian Larch tolerates the coldest winters on the northern hemisphere in eastern Siberia. The very southernmost parts of the taiga might also have trees like oak, maple, elm and tilia scattered among the conifers.

Climate and geography

White Spruce taiga, Denali Highway, Alaska Range, Alaska

Taiga is the world's largest land biome, and makes up 27% of the worlds forest cover; the largest areas are located in Russia and Canada. The taiga is the coldest terrestrial biome after the tundra and permanent ice caps. The taiga or boreal forest has a subarctic continental climate with very large temperature range between seasons, but the long and cold winter is the dominant feature. This climate is classified as "Dfc", "Dfd and Dwd" in the Köppen climate classification scheme, meaning that the short summer (24-hr average 10°C or more) lasts 1–3 months and always less than 4 months. There are also some much smaller areas grading towards the oceanic Cfc climate with milder winters. The mean annual temperature generally varies from -5°C to 5°C, but there are taiga areas in both eastern Siberia and interior Alaska- Yukon where the mean annual reaches down to -10°C. According to some sources, the boreal forest grade into a temperate mixed forest when mean annual temperature reaches about 3°C. Permafrost is common in areas with mean annual temperature below 0°C. The winters last 5 – 7 months with average temperatures below freezing. Temperatures vary from −54°C to 30°C (-65°F to 86°F) throughout the whole year.

The taiga in the river valley near Verkhoyansk, Russia, at 67°N, must deal with the coldest winter temperatures in the northern hemisphere, but the extreme continental climate gives an average daily high of 22°C in July.

The summers, while short, are generally warm and humid. In much of the taiga, -20°C would be a typical winter day temperature and 18°C an average summer day.

The growing season, when the plants in the taiga comes alive, is usually slightly longer than the climatic definition of summer as the plants of the boreal biome have a lower threshold to trigger growth. In Canada, Scandinavia and Finland, the growing season is often estimated by using the period of the year when the 24-hr average temperature is 5 °C or more. For the Taiga Plains in Canada, growing season varies from 80 to 150 days, and in the Taiga Shield from 100 to 140 days. Some sources claim 130 days growing season as typical for the taiga. Other sources mention that 50 - 100 frost-free days are characteristic. Data for locations in southwest Yukon gives 80 - 120 frost-free days. The closed canopy boreal forest in Kenozersky near Plesetsk, Arkhangelsk Province, Russia, on average has 108 frost-free days. The longest growing season is found in the smaller areas with oceanic influences; in coastal areas of Scandinavia and Finland, the growing season of the closed boreal forest can be 145 – 180 days. The shortest growing season is found at the northern taiga - tundra ecotone, where the northern taiga forest no longer can grow and the tundra dominate the landscape when the growing season is down to 50 – 70 days, and the 24-hr average of the warmest month of the year usually is 10°C or less. High latitudes mean that the sun does not rise far above the horizon, and less solar energy is received than further south. But the high latitude also ensures very long summer days as the sun stays above the horizon nearly 20 hours each day, while only around 6 hours in the dark winters, depending on latitude. The areas of the taiga inside the Arctic circle have midnight sun in mid-summer and polar night in mid-winter.

The taiga experiences relatively low precipitation throughout the year (generally 200–750 mm annually, 1,000 mm in some areas), primarily as rain during the summer months, but also as fog and snow; as evaporation is also low for most of the year, precipitation exceeds evaporation and is sufficient for the dense vegetation growth. Snow may remain on the ground for as long as nine months in the northernmost extensions of the taiga ecozone.

Lakes and other waterbodies are very common. The Helvetinjärvi National Park, Finland, is located in the southern boreal forest.
Yukon, Canada. Several of the worlds longest rivers goes through the taiga, including Ob, Yenisei, Lena and Mackenzie.

In general, taiga grows to the south of the 10 °C July isotherm, but occasionally as far north as the 9 °C July isotherm. The southern limit is more variable, depending on rainfall; taiga may be replaced by open steppe woodland south of the 15 °C July isotherm where rainfall is very low, but more typically extends south to the 18 °C July isotherm, and locally where rainfall is higher (notably in eastern Siberia and adjacent northern Manchuria) south to the 20 °C July isotherm. In these warmer areas, the taiga has higher species diversity with more warmth-loving species such as Korean Pine, Jezo Spruce and Manchurian Fir, and merges gradually into mixed temperate forest, or more locally (on the Pacific Ocean coasts of North America and Asia) into coniferous temperate rainforests.

Much of the area currently classified as taiga was recently glaciated. As the glaciers receded they left depressions in the topography that have since filled with water, creating lakes and bogs (especially muskeg soil) found throughout the Taiga.


Taiga soil tends to be young and nutrient-poor; it lacks the deep, organically-enriched profile present in temperate deciduous forests. The thinness of the soil is due largely to the cold, which hinders the development of soil and the ease with which plants can use its nutrients. Fallen leaves and moss can remain on the forest floor for a long time in the cool, moist climate, which limits their organic contribution to the soil; acids from evergreen needles further leach the soil, creating spodosol. Since the soil is acidic due to the falling pine needles, the forest floor has only lichens and some mosses growing on it.


Boreal Forest near Lake Baikal in Russia

There are two major types of taiga. The southern part is the closed canopy forest, consisting of many closely-spaced trees with mossy ground cover. In clearings in the forest, shrubs and wildflowers are common, such as the fireweed. The other type is the lichen woodland or sparse taiga, with trees that are farther-spaced and lichen ground cover; the latter is common in the northernmost taiga. In the northernmost taiga the forest cover is not only more sparse, but often stunted in growth form; moreover, ice pruned asymmetric Black Spruce are often seen, with diminished foliage on the windward side. In Canada, Scandinavia and Finland, the boreal forest is usually divided into three subzones: The high boreal (north boreal) or taiga zone, the middle boreal (closed forest) and the southern boreal. The latter is a closed canopy boreal forest with some scattered temperate deciduous trees among the conifers, such as maple, elm and oak. This southern boreal forest has the longest and warmest growing season of the biome, and is sometimes used for agricultural purposes.

The boreal forest is home to many types of berries, including the bilberry, lingonberry and cloudberry.

The forests of the taiga are largely coniferous, dominated by larch, spruce, fir, and pine. Evergreen species in the taiga (spruce, fir, and pine) have a number of adaptations specifically for survival in harsh taiga winters, although larch, the most cold-tolerant of all trees, is deciduous. Taiga trees tend to have shallow roots to take advantage of the thin soils, while many of them seasonally alter their biochemistry to make them more resistant to freezing, called "hardening". The narrow conical shape of northern conifers, and their downward-drooping limbs, also help them shed snow.

Because the sun is low in the horizon for most of the year, it is difficult for plants to generate energy from photosynthesis. Pine and spruce do not lose their leaves seasonally and are able to photosynthesize with their older leaves in late winter and spring when light is good but temperatures are still too low for new growth to commence. The adaptation of evergreen needles limits the water lost due to transpiration and their dark green colour increases their absorption of sunlight. Although precipitation is not a limiting factor, the ground freezes during the winter months and plant roots are unable to absorb water, so desiccation can be a severe problem in late winter for evergreens.

Moss ( Ptilium crista-castrensis) cover on the floor of taiga

Although the taiga is dominated by coniferous forests, some broadleaf trees also occur, notably birch, aspen, willow, and rowan. Many smaller herbaceous plants grow closer to the ground. Periodic stand-replacing wildfires (with return times of between 20–200 years) clear out the tree canopies, allowing sunlight to invigorate new growth on the forest floor. For some species, wildfires are a necessary part of the life cycle in the taiga; some, e.g. Jack Pine have cones which only open to release their seed after a fire, dispersing their seeds onto the newly cleared ground. Grasses grow wherever they can find a patch of sun, and mosses and lichens thrive on the damp ground and on the sides of tree trunks. In comparison with other biomes, however, the taiga has a low biological diversity.

Coniferous trees are the dominant plants of the taiga biome. A very few species in four main genera are found: the evergreen spruce, fir, and pine, and the deciduous larch or tamarack. In North America, one or two species of fir and one or two species of spruce are dominant. Across Scandinavia and western Russia the Scots pine is a common component of the taiga.


Brown bear, Kamchatka peninsula. Brown bears are among the largest and most widespread taiga predators.

The boreal forests or taiga supports a large range of animals. Canadas boreal forests includes 85 species of mammals, 130 species of fish and an estimated 32,000 species of insects. Insects play a critical role as pollinators, decomposers and as a part of the food chain; many nesting birds rely on them for food. The cold winter and short summers make the taiga a challenging biome for reptiles and amphibians, which depend on environmental conditions to regulate their body temperatures, and there are only a few species in the boreal forest. Some hibernate under ground in winter.

The taiga is home to a number of large herbivorous mammals, such as moose and reindeer/ caribou. Some areas of the more southern closed boreal forest also have populations of other deer species such as the elk (wapiti) and roe deer. There are also a range of smaller rodents, including beaver, squirrel, mountain hare, snowshoe hare and vole. These animals have adapted to survive a climate harsh for humans. Some of the larger mammals, such as bears, eat during the summer in order to gain weight and then go into hibernation during the winter. Other animals have adapted layers of fur or feathers to insulate them from the cold.

A number of wildlife species threatened or endangered with extinction can be found in the Canadian Boreal forest including woodland caribou, American black bear, grizzly bear and wolverine. Habitat loss, mainly due to logging, is the primary cause of decline for these species.

Due to the climate carnivorous diets are an inefficient means of obtaining energy; energy is limited, and most energy is lost between trophic levels. Predatory birds (owls and eagles) and other smaller carnivores, including foxes and weasels, feed on the rodents. Larger carnivores, such as lynx and wolves, prey on the larger animals. Omnivores, such as bears and raccoons are fairly common, sometimes picking through human garbage.

More than 300 species of birds have their nesting ground in the taiga. This includes Siberian Thrush, White-throated Sparrow and Black-throated Green Warbler, migrate to this habitat to take advantage of the long summer days and abundance of insects found around the numerous bogs and lakes. Of the 300 species of birds that summer in the taiga, only 30 stay for the winter. These are either carrion-feeding or large raptors that can take live mammal prey, including Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, and Raven, or else seed-eating birds, including several species of grouse and crossbills.

Plesetsk Cosmodrome is situated in the taiga


Human activities

Large areas of Siberia’s taiga have been harvested for lumber since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Canada, less than eight percent of the Boreal forest is protected from development and more than 50% has been allocated to logging companies for cutting. The main form of forestry in the Boreal forest in Canada is clearcutting, where most if not all trees are removed from an area of forest. Clearcut upwards of 110 km² have been recorded in the Canadian Boreal forest. Some of the products from logged Boreal forests include toilet paper, copy paper, newsprint and lumber. More than 80% of Boreal forest products from Canada are exported for consumption and processing in the United States. Some of the larger cities situated in this biome are Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Yakutsk, Anchorage, Yellowknife, Tromsø, Luleå and Oulu.

Most companies that harvest in Canadian forests are certified by an independent third party agency such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forests Initiative (SFI), or the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). While the certification process differs between these various groups, all of them include forest stewardship, respect for aboriginal peoples, compliance with local, provincial and/or national environmental laws, forest worker safety, education and training, and other environmental, business and social requirements. The prompt renewal of all harvest sites by planting or natural renewal is also required.


Recent years have seen outbreaks of insect pests in forest-destroying plagues: the spruce- bark beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) in the Yukon Territory, Canada, and Alaska; the aspen-leaf miner; the larch sawfly; the spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana); the spruce coneworm.


Peat bog in Dalarna, Sweden. Bogs and peatland are widespread in the taiga. They are home to a uniqe flora, and store vast amounts of carbon. In western Eurasia, the pine is common in the boreal forest

Many nations are taking direct steps to protect the ecology of the Boreal forests by prohibiting logging, mining, oil and gas production, and other forms of development. In February 2010 the Canadian government established protection for 5,300 square miles of boreal forest by creating a new 4,100 square mile park reserve in the Mealy Mountains area of eastern Canada and a 1,200 square mile waterway provincial park that follows alongside the Eagle River from headwaters to sea. The boreal forest stores enormous quantities of carbon, possibly more than the temperate and tropical forests combined, much of it in peatland.

Natural disturbance

One of the biggest areas of research and a topic still full of unsolved questions is the recurring disturbance of fire and the role it plays in propagating the lichen woodland . The phenomenon of wildfire by lighting strike is the primary determinant of understory vegetation and because of this, it is considered to be predominate driving force behind community and ecosystem properties in the lichen woodland . The importance of fire is clearly evident when one considers that understory vegetation influences tree seedling germination in the short term and decomposition of biomass and nutrient availability in the long term . The recurrent cycle of large, damaging fire occurs approximately every 70 to 100 years . Understanding the dynamics of this ecosystem is entangled with discovering the successional paths that the vegetation exhibits after a fire. Trees, shrubs and lichens all recover from fire induced damage through vegetative reproduction as well as invasion by propagules . Seeds that have fallen and become buried provide little help in re-establishment of a species. The reappearance of lichens is reasoned to occur because of varying conditions and light/nutrient availability in each different microstate . Several different studies have been done that have led to the formation of the theory that post-fire development can be propagated by any of four pathways: self replacement, species-dominance relay, species replacement, or gap-phase self replacement . Self replacement is simply the re-establishment of the pre-fire dominant species. Species-dominance relay is a sequential attempt of tree species to establish dominance in the canopy. Species replacement is when fires occur in sufficient frequency to interrupt species dominance relay. Gap-Phase Self-Replacement is the least common and so far has only been documented in Western Canada. It is a self replacement of the surviving species into the canopy gaps after a fire kills another species. The particular pathway taken after a fire disturbance depends on how the landscape is able to support trees as well as fire frequency . Fire frequency has a large role in shaping the original inception of the lower forest line of the lichen woodland taiga.

Centuries ago, the southern limits of lichen woodland taiga were only being formed . It has been hypothesized and subsequently proved by Serge Payette that the Spruce-Moss forest ecosystem was changed into the lichen woodland biome due to the initiation of two compounded strong disturbances . The two disturbances were large fire and the appearance and attack of the spruce budworm. The spruce budworm is a deadly insect to the spruce populations in the southern regions of the taiga. J.P. Jasinski confirmed this theory five years later stating “Their [lichen woodlands] persistence , along with their previous moss forest histories and current occurrence adjacent to closed moss forests, indicate that they are an alternative stable state to the spruce–moss forests” .

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