Biology » Ecology and the Biosphere » Terrestrial Biomes

Boreal Forests

Boreal Forests

The boreal forest, also known as taiga or coniferous forest, is found south of the Arctic Circle and across most of Canada, Alaska, Russia, and northern Europe (see the figure below). This biome has cold, dry winters and short, cool, wet summers. The annual precipitation is from 40 cm to 100 cm (15.7–39 in) and usually takes the form of snow. Little evaporation occurs because of the cold temperatures.

 This world map shows the eight major biomes, polar ice, and mountains. Tropical forests, deserts and savannas are found primarily in South America, Africa, and Australia. Tropical forests also dominate Southeast Asia. Deserts dominate the Middle East and are found in the southwestern United States. Temperate forests dominate the eastern United States, Europe, and Eastern Asia. Temperate grasslands dominate the midwestern United States and parts of Asia, and are also found in South America. The boreal forest is found in northern Canada, Europe, and Asia, and tundra exists to the north of the boreal forest. Mountainous regions run the length of North and South America, and are found in northern India, Africa, and parts of Europe. Polar ice covers Greenland and Antarctica, which the latter is not shown on the map.

Each of the world’s major biomes is distinguished by characteristic temperatures and amounts of precipitation. Polar ice and mountains are also shown.

The long and cold winters in the boreal forest have led to the predominance of cold-tolerant cone-bearing plants. These are evergreen coniferous trees like pines, spruce, and fir, which retain their needle-shaped leaves year-round. Evergreen trees can photosynthesize earlier in the spring than deciduous trees because less energy from the sun is required to warm a needle-like leaf than a broad leaf. This benefits evergreen trees, which grow faster than deciduous trees in the boreal forest. In addition, soils in boreal forest regions tend to be acidic with little available nitrogen. Leaves are a nitrogen-rich structure and deciduous trees must produce a new set of these nitrogen-rich structures each year. Therefore, coniferous trees that retain nitrogen-rich needles may have a competitive advantage over the broad-leafed deciduous trees.

The net primary productivity of boreal forests is lower than that of temperate forests and tropical wet forests. The aboveground biomass of boreal forests is high because these slow-growing tree species are long lived and accumulate standing biomass over time. Plant species diversity is less than that seen in temperate forests and tropical wet forests. Boreal forests lack the pronounced elements of the layered forest structure seen in tropical wet forests. The structure of a boreal forest is often only a tree layer and a ground layer (see the figure below). When conifer needles are dropped, they decompose more slowly than broad leaves; therefore, fewer nutrients are returned to the soil to fuel plant growth.

 The photo shows a boreal forest with a uniform low layer of plants and tall conifers scattered throughout the landscape. The snowcapped mountains of the Alaska Range are in the background.

The boreal forest (taiga) has low lying plants and conifer trees. (credit: L.B. Brubaker)

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