The taiga forms one of the world’s Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs).
Scientists define IFLs as places where forest ecosystems and their habitat plant community forms an unbroken natural landscape. They also lack major forms of human development or habitat fragmentation. The latter, in particular, allows IFLs to contain and support a vast diversity of plant and animal species.
IFLs also play very important roles in Earth’s environment, such as air and water purification, carbon sequestration, erosion and flood control, as well as nutrient cycling. Scientists first began mapping IFLs in the 1990s, with Greenpeace Russia issuing the first regional maps in 2001. The release of complete global maps of the world’s IFLs followed between 2005 and 2006. This allows conservation groups to accurately track and record the health of the world’s IFLs over time. Currently, the taiga forms an estimated 44% of the world’s IFLs, with tropical and subtropical forests forming the rest.
The permafrost varies in the taiga around the world.
Permafrost refers to a phenomenon where soil remains either completely or partially frozen all year round. Scientists further divide this into continuous and discontinuous permafrost. In the case of the former, this means the permafrost never melts. This usually results from a climate where the average temperature constantly remains below zero.
In contrast, discontinuous permafrost means the ground only stays frozen in sheltered areas. This too, similarly, is because of climates where the average temperature slightly rises above zero at certain times of the year. Most of the Russian taiga experiences continuous permafrost, although parts of it have discontinuous permafrost. Similarly, the rest of the world’s taiga experiences discontinuous permafrost.
Parts of the taiga experience both the midnight sun and polar night phenomena.
The midnight sun refers to a phenomenon where the Sun never sets during the summer. Similarly, the polar night refers to a phenomenon where the Sun never rises during winter. In both cases, the phenomena only take place near the poles, as a result of the planet’s tilt affecting the way the Sun’s light reaches those regions during summer and winter.
Parts of the taiga that experience both phenomena mostly lie north of the Arctic Circle, or 63°30’ N latitude. These include Arkhangelsk Oblast and Krasnoyarsk Krai in Russia. That said, some parts of the taiga south of the Arctic Circle also experience both the midnight sun as well as the polar night. These include North Ostrobothnia, as well as Lapland in Finland, among other places.
The taiga generally receives only low precipitation.
In fact, it is one of the driest places on Earth, with only the world’s deserts receiving even less rainfall. On average, the taiga only receives at most 1 meter of precipitation per year, with rain only falling in summer. Otherwise, moisture comes to the biome in the form of fog or snow, with the latter falling for 9 months per year.
That said, the taiga also enjoys very low temperatures. This means that it also has even lower rates of evaporation. This ironically gives the taiga plenty of water to support its biodiversity, in contrast to places like the steppe.
Glaciers once covered parts of the modern taiga.
In fact, during the last Ice Age, ice sheets covered most of the land that now includes the taiga biome. In some places, the ice formed glaciers, massive formations of ice so heavy they plowed away the soil in front of them down to the bedrock. Even then, the weight of the ice fractured and depressed the rock, forming deep channels.
When the Ice Age ended, the glaciers and ice sheets melted, forming lakes and various other water bodies in what became the taiga. These prove especially common in North America, with the Great Lakes as the most prominent example. Finland’s Lakeland has similar origins, as do Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega in Russia.
It also has bogs and peatlands.
These similarly developed from the taiga’s past as frozen over with ice during the last Ice Age. When the ice melted in places without easy drainage, it soaked into the soil, forming wetlands. Plants then grew in the warming climate, but when they died, they sank into the watery ground. Relatively-low temperatures meant decomposition happened only slowly, with the bacteria causing the decomposition to produce small amounts of heat in the rotting plant matter. These worked together to turn it into peat, a precursor to coal, lacking only geological pressure to continue the coal formation process.
Bogs refer to water bodies with large amounts of peat on the underwater floor. This makes the water acidic, making it difficult for plants to grow in it. In contrast, peatlands refer to drier if still moist areas surrounding bogs, which may become submerged depending on the area’s water level.
The taiga generally has poor soil.
This primarily results from how evergreen trees make up the taiga’s forests. Unlike temperate and other forests, evergreen trees do not regularly drop their leaves to the ground. And when they do, the cold temperatures in the taiga mean it takes a long time for any fallen leaves to rot. This, in turn, means nutrients take a very long time to return to the soil from trees and other plant life. And when they do rot, evergreen leaves tend to leave acidic byproducts, which remain in the soil and reduce their quality further.
The rarity of grazing animals in the taiga is also another factor in the biome’s poor soil. In other biomes, grazing animals return nutrients to the soil in the form of droppings, which helps form manure to enrich the soil. That said, some parts of the taiga support deciduous trees and plants, which develop richer soil in parts of the biome.
It also has surprisingly rich plant life.
This is a surprise because of the poor quality of the taiga’s soil. Scientists divide most of the taiga into two parts, the closed canopy forest and the lichen woodland. Closed canopy forests typically grow in the southern regions of the taiga. They feature closely-spaced tree cover, as well as moss-covered grounds. Shrubs and wildflowers also wildly grow in clearings in the closed canopy forest.
Lichen woodlands, though, typically grow in the northern parts of the taiga. Trees here have wider spaces between them, and lichen instead of moss covers the ground. The Canadian, Finnish, and Scandinavian taiga, though, have their own separate divisions compared to the rest of the world’s taiga. Specifically, the high boreal, located in the far north of the biome, the southern boreal, in its southern regions, and the middle boreal between them.
The southern boreal in particular mixes with the temperate forests, featuring deciduous trees like elm, maple, and oak among the dominant evergreens. The middle boreal, though, has the same features as the closed canopy forest, and the high boreal similarly has the same features as the lichen woodland.
A lot of animals live in the taiga.
The Canadian taiga alone features 85 mammal species, 130 fish species, and an estimated 32,000 insect species. Caribou, moose, and reindeer are some of the most successful species to live in the taiga. Moose and reindeer, in particular, have become iconic animals for cultures that live in the biome. Some cultures have even domesticated reindeer in similar ways to horses, such as in Finland.
Various birds also live in the taiga, from predators like the golden eagle to migratory birds like the Siberian thrush. Cold-blooded animals like amphibians and reptiles prove a rarity in the taiga, as their metabolism makes it difficult for them to adapt to the local temperatures. That said, some amphibians and reptiles have adapted to the taiga, such as the blue-spotted salamander, the red-sided garter snake, and the Siberian salamander.
Brown bears are one of the animals who successfully thrived in the taiga.
Much of the global population of brown bears are living in the biome. In fact, this makes up one reason why bears have unofficially become synonymous with Russia. It’s also similar to why the brown bear has become the official national animal of Finland. That said, brown bears don’t just live in the Finnish and Russian taiga, they’re also widespread in the Scandinavian and North American taiga.
Despite the bear’s general reputation, brown bears aren’t actually carnivores, but omnivores. Flowers, fruits, leaves, and even mushrooms actually make up an estimated 90% of their diet. However, even if meat forms only a small part of their diet, it doesn’t mean that the brown bear’s reputation as a predator isn’t well-founded. Brown bears prey on animals like caribou, elk, moose, mountain goats, and sheep, as well as wild boars. Salmon, though, are the brown bears’ preferred source of animal proteins in their diet.
Polar bears also sometimes live in the taiga.
This mostly happens in Canada and Alaska. Unlike brown bears, though, polar bears tend to be more aggressive. Since humans are very alien to them, they’re more likely to attack them, thinking they are a threat.
Polar bears also have a hypercarnivorous diet, meaning even if they’re biologically omnivorous, meat forms over 70% of their diet. Seals make up their preferred prey, although polar bears sometimes attack beluga whales and narwhals. Also, while cases exist where polar bears have successfully attacked walruses, scientists have since discovered that this happens rarely. More often than not, a walrus would not only succeed in forcing a polar bear to run but inflict serious injuries on it.
Wood bison are the largest animals to live in a taiga.
While they are commonly called mountain bison, wood buffalo, or mountain buffalo, scientists actually consider these alternative names inaccurate. The wood bison’s genetics prove it a very distant cousin to what scientists call true bison. Specifically, the African and Asian buffalo.
Name aside, the wood bison live in Alaska and Canada, in both the taiga and temperate biomes. They can grow up to 3.35 meters tall at the shoulder and can grow as long as 95 cm long from head to tail. Similarly, their weight can reach up to 1,179 kg, making them not just the largest animals in the taiga, but in North America as a whole.
That said, a combination of disease, habitat loss, and hybridization with domesticated cattle varieties has put the species’ future in danger. Today, scientists estimate the wood bison’s population at 2,500 animals, making them a Threatened Species.
Wildfires naturally occur in the taiga.
Strange as it might sound, wildfires actually have a renewing function in the taiga, burning down old growth and allowing new growth to replace it. Scientists have noted that wildfires naturally erupt in intervals of between 70 and 100 years.
The wildfire not only burns down preexisting vegetation but accumulated biomatter on the ground. The resulting ashes help fertilize the soil, with shrubs and lichen usually the first to recover. Trees take longer to sprout and regrow the forest, but they do, usually from seeds left in the ground and protected from fire.
For this reason, firefighters usually only go on standby when a wildfire erupts in the taiga. They wait and watch, letting the wildfire do what nature intends for it to do, and only take action when the wildfire threatens areas with human habitations nearby.
A recent wildfire in the taiga took place in 2014, the Funny River Fire.
It began on May 14 of that year, near the city of Soldotna in Alaska, in the Kenai National Wildlife Reserve. Over the following days, the wildfire grew to consume an estimated 271 km² of the surrounding landscape by May 23. Containment efforts began on that day, but the wildfire continued to grow, before consuming a total of 631 km² of the surrounding landscape.
Firefighters reported no visible flames by July 10, however, authorities did not officially declare the wildfire put out until December 8. An investigation later discovered that human activities may have started the wildfire, at the Funny River Horse Trail. Two people lost their lives in the fire. Thankfully, an early and organized evacuation of the Kasilof, Sterling, and Lower Skilak Lake areas was enforced.
A similar wildfire previously took place in 2009, the Shanta Creek Wildfire.
It began on June 29 that year, also in the Kenai National Wildlife Reserve. Unlike the later Funny River Fire, the Shanta Creek Wildfire had a natural origin, specifically, a lightning strike. Firefighters began to take action on July 9, when the wildfire began spreading in the direction of Kasilof and Soldotna. By then, the wildfire had grown to cover an area of 40 km² and would continue spreading over the following days. Sustained rain fell on July 18, which greatly helped the firefighting efforts. The wildfire finally stopped growing on July 21. It ultimately consumed an estimated area of 54 km². Thankfully, no one lost their lives as a result of the wildfire.
The Caribou Hills Fire in 2007 required immediate action.
It started on June 19 of that year, near Ninilchik in Alaska. Unlike other wildfires, the Caribou Hills Fire quickly grew out of control, and in the direction of Ninilchik. This, in turn, forced firefighters to quickly take action.
The wildfire also had a human origin, which is ignited by dry grass caused by a shovel being sharpened. Even worse, the wildfire raged in Alaska, limiting the firefighters’ response. Evacuation orders became the first priority given the quick spread of the wildfire. By June 21, smoke from the wildfire had reached Anchorage, and the government had to declare a no-fly zone over the region.
The wildfire would not come under control until the first week of July, and by then it had consumed over 400 km² of the surrounding landscape. It has also destroyed at least 197 buildings, but thankfully, no one died as a result of the wildfire.
Firefighters have various ways to fight wildfires in the taiga.
In fact, they’re usually quite simple and aren’t particularly different from ways used to fight ordinary fires. For starters, they spray jets of high-pressure water to try and put the fire out. In the case of wildfires, though, spraying water isn’t enough to put it out, thanks to the large area that’s on fire. Instead, spraying water works to help keep the fire under control and stop it from spreading.
Firefighters also use helicopters or special aircraft to dump water in midair over the heart of a wildfire. They may also dump sand, which can put out wildfires by burying any unburnt fuel, cutting it off from the oxygen it needs to burn.
However, the simplest method to put out wildfires involves letting them burn themselves out on their own. Firefighters simply need to keep it from spreading, whether by dousing the edges of the wildfire or digging trenches called firebreaks. These trenches have no fuel in them, and with nothing to burn, the wildfire can’t grow past them.
The Scandinavian and Russian taiga form a separate ecoregion of their own.
It stretches from Norway in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, and from the Arctic in the north to Northwestern Russia in the south. This gives it an estimated total area of 2.17 million km², making it the largest ecoregion in Europe.
Scots pine dominates the forests of the Scandinavian and Russian taiga, with various trees making up their understories. These include the common juniper, the Norway spruce, and the Siberian spruce. The eastern parts of the ecoregion also feature large numbers of the Siberian larch. Similarly, the southern parts of the ecoregion also have a number of elm, maple, and oak trees.
In addition to trees, the ecoregion also features at least 368 vertebrate species alone. These include the European mink, the garden dormouse, the pond bat, and the Russian desman. The countries, which make up the ecoregion, also maintain various protected areas within their borders. These include the Femundsmarka National Park in Norway, the Bjornlandet National Park in Sweden, the Helvetinjarvi National Park in Finland, and the Paanajarvi National Park in Russia.
The North Canadian Shield taiga forms another separate ecoregion of its own.
As its name indicates, this ecoregion lies in Northern Canada, stretching from the Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories to Hudson Bay on the Atlantic coast. This gives it a total area of an estimated 600,000 km², spread out over six Canadian provinces.
Black spruce and tamarack make up the dominant trees in the ecoregion, with white spruce competing closely with them. The North Canadian Shield taiga almost has no human presence, with up to 95% of the ecoregion remaining untouched wilderness. This becomes even more remarkable given how only 8% of the ecoregion enjoys official protection. Protected areas in the ecoregion include the Baralzon Lake Ecological Reserve, the Numaykoos Lake Provincial Park, the Sand Lakes Provincial Park, and the Wood Buffalo National Park, among others.
Other parts of the taiga around the world have their own ecoregions.
These include the East Siberian taiga, which covers an estimated area of 3.8 million km². It stands out among the world’s taiga for its lack of bogs and peatlands. There are also the Iceland boreal birch forests and alpine taiga. It’s one of the smallest taigas in the world, with an estimated area of only 92,000 km², thanks to the small size of Iceland. It’s also the most threatened, with only 1% left of the taiga untouched by human development.
There’s also the Alaska Peninsula montane taiga, covering an estimated area of 47,000 km². This taiga stands out thanks to its large bear populations, sustained by the annual salmon runs of the region’s many rivers. There’s also the Yukon Interior dry forests taiga, with an estimated area of 62,000 km². This taiga currently has 75% of its wilderness untouched by human development, mostly in the uplands. In contrast, the lowlands of the ecoregion have seen widespread human development.
Agafia Lykova has become especially famous for living in the taiga.
Born in 1944 to Karp Osipovich Lykov and Akulina Lykova, Agafia has spent her whole life in the Abakan Range of Siberia, around 240 km from the nearest town. It wasn’t even until 1978 that she was discovered by four geologists during an aerial survey. They initially thought she was feral but went on to get in touch with her.
According to the geologists, she spoke a very old dialect of Russian and lived in a small, pre-industrial home. She soon became a minor celebrity, with the Soviet government paying for her to tour the Union in 1980. She returned to her countryside home right afterward, however, and continues to live there to this day. One of the geologists who first met her, Yerofei Sedov, later settled down nearby and became her next-door neighbor. Sedov died on May 3, 2015, leaving Agafia alone once again in her home in the taiga.
Many cities stand in the taiga.
These include Murmansk, located in the oblast of the same name in Northwestern Russia. It’s one of the most important places in the country, as one of Russia’s few ports with an ice-free status all year round.
There’s also Arkhangelsk, again in the oblast of the same name in Northern Russia. While only ice-free for around six months of the year, it’s still very important, as it’s Russia’s main port on the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean beyond.
Anchorage in Alaska also stands in the taiga, with the city the largest in the state, as well as its main port. Similarly, Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories stands in the taiga, serving as the region’s capital and only city.
The Plesetsk Cosmodrome also stands in the taiga.
As its name indicates, it’s a spaceport, from which Russian spacecraft come and go between Earth and space. It stands near Mirny, a town in Arkhangelsk Oblast, which has a “closed” status for security purposes because of its proximity to Plesetsk Cosmodrome.
Built in 1957, the spaceport originally served as a missile base for the Soviet Union, but eventually became expanded to support the Soviets’ main spaceport at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Following the Fall of the Soviet Union, however, Russia expanded the modernized Plesetsk Cosmodrome. While they still have access to Baikonur Cosmodrome, the expensive rent Kazakhstan levies on Russia for such has led them to divert space traffic to Plesetsk Cosmodrome for financial reasons.
Lumber industries heavily exploit the taiga.
The Siberian taiga, in particular, has become increasingly tapped for lumber and lumber-based products. Ironically, the Soviet Union had strictly banned the exploitation of the Siberian taiga, but with the Fall of the Soviet Union, the ban lapsed. Chinese companies proved especially quick to make trade deals with the new Russian Federation. Decades of industrial development had depleted China’s own native forests, and the Siberian taiga has drawn interest for its vast forests. This, in turn, caused widespread protests from local residents, as well as from international organizations.
Outside of Russia, the Canadian taiga has similarly seen heavy exploitation for lumber-based products. The Canadian government officially balances this out with large-scale replanting efforts. That said, scientists have criticized said efforts, pointing out that the long growth periods mean it wouldn’t truly repair the damage for decades. They also argue that many saplings include those of non-native trees, which could have unforeseen side effects on the local ecosystem in the future.
Climate change makes up one of the biggest threats to the taiga today.
Ironically, this works both ways, first in that it makes winters colder, with some nights seeing temperatures drop to as low as -20°C. Second, frost-free seasons have increased in length, with Alaska in particular now having 120 days in summer compared to between 60 and 90 days a century ago. This has increased water stress for local vegetation and even stunted plant growth in drier areas of the taiga.
Precipitation has also increased, which together with warmer temperatures has scientists worried. They fear that the taiga might actually shrink, with the southern regions merging with the temperate forest or even grassland biomes.
Scientists have also noticed how local species have begun to shift in response to the changing climate. Siberia, for example, has seen needle-shedding larches become outcompeted by evergreen conifers. Scientists think this might also have the side-effect of increasing local global warming, as the evergreen conifers absorb more sunlight than the larches.
Drunken trees stand as one of the most visible effects of climate change on the taiga.
The drunken trees phenomenon refers to places where trees seem to have staggered or spun in an out-of-control fashion from the ground up. This is a result of trees that grew in permafrost suddenly finding their roots dislodged by said permafrost melting. This can actually cause entire groves or forests to die, as their roots find themselves unable to sustain the rest of the tree. That, or the unstable tree simply uproots itself as gravity tears it out of the ground.
That said, it’s not impossible for a tree to adapt. Its roots could adjust to the newly-melted ground and its trunk could grow in a twisted upwards direction. However, this doesn’t happen very often, with the tree instead more likely to wither. Scientists predict this phenomenon will only become more widespread over the course of the 21st century unless the world adopts efforts to reverse climate change.
Various invasive insect species also threaten the taiga today.
Scientists have even connected it to climate change, in particular, the longer summers in the taiga. The specific pests themselves sometimes vary from one region of the taiga to another, for instance, the spruce-bark beetle that primarily afflicts the Alaskan and Yukon taiga. Neighboring British Columbia similarly finds itself primarily plagued by the mountain pine beetle.
Other invasive insect species in the taiga today include the aspen-leaf miner, the larch sawfly, the spruce budworm, and the spruce coneworm. These pests typically destroy forests by having their larvae feed on the trees’ leaves while they’re still shoots. This, in turn, results in the trees failing to develop complete foliage during the summer. While trees have significant resistance to such massive defoliation, repeated infestations by said pests will ultimately starve entire forests to death over a period of years.
Pollution also presents a threat to the taiga today.
Sulfur dioxide emissions, such as those produced by coal plants and diesel engines, have a negative effect on a tree’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide. In fact, as early as 1984, scientists discovered the Canadian taiga had already reached the maximum limit of exposure to sulfur dioxide, specifically, 0.34 ppm.
Exposure to waste material from oil sand development in the taiga has caused even bigger losses in the region’s trees’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Sulfur dioxide can also mix with water vapor in the air to form sulfuric acid. The same goes for nitrogen oxide, also produced by coal plants, and on mixing with water vapor, forms nitric acid. The resulting acid rain has seen dropping chlorophyll levels for white spruces in the taiga as far back as 1987.
Governments worldwide have struggled to protect the taiga.
As early as 2008, Canadian leaders have made calls to ban oil and gas exploration and drilling in the taiga. They’ve also made efforts to tighten restrictions on logging operations in the biome. The taiga in Russia is also protected by similar efforts. That said, all these efforts run into established interests, leading to a heated debate between the economy and the environment.
In Canada, for example, efforts to limit oil and gas development in the taiga have met heavy opposition. And not just from global oil and gas companies, but from local communities, who see these companies as sources of income, as well. Russian efforts to protect their taiga have also met opposition from corporate interests. Not only does this risk compromising the profitable export of lumber and lumber-based products to China, but it also risks the growing tourist industry of the Russian Far East.
NGOs once formed the Taiga Rescue Network (TRN) to coordinate conservation efforts for the taiga.
NGOs formed the TRN in 1992 with the goal of coordinating worldwide efforts to protect the taiga. These included lobbying for conservation programs from governments, extending public awareness programs, and raising funds.
They also conducted research into finding ways to balance economic needs and environmental welfare. In particular, the TRN promoted the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC’s) proposed guidelines for responsible management of forest resources. The TRN also pushed for cooperation with indigenous peoples in the taiga and cited their rich cultural heritage as another factor in preserving the taiga.
However, the TRN slowly faded into irrelevance over the decades, with the organization holding its last conference in 2010. The organization attempted to maintain a presence on the internet, but with the shutdown of its site in 2013, the TRN has been completely defunct.