The Taiga

Abbey Rahier and Emily Maranga

The taiga, also known as the boreal forest, is one of many biomes on Earth. It is located in the subarctic region of the Earth. This area is in the Northern Hemisphere below the Arctic Circle. To be more specific, this ecosystem can be found in Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia. The largest taiga can be found in Russia and covers land from the Pacific Ocean to the Ural Mountains – this is about 5,800 kilometers (3,600 miles). This specific taiga is covered by glaciers, but many others have visible soil layers. Below the soil there is usually either a layer of permafrost or bedrock. Permafrost is soil that has been frozen for many years. These layers lead to the creation of muskegs, or wet and spongy land, because the water cannot drain.

This ecosystem is usually characterized by its unique climate. On average, the temperature is below freezing for half of the year. The winters tend to have a lot of snowfall and can be between -54 and -1° C (-65 and 30° F). The summers are short but are a bit warmer with a temperature range of -7 to 21° C (20 to 70° F). Similarly, spring and autumn are even shorter and barely even recognizable as seasons. The taiga has a low to moderate amount of precipitation compared to other high precipitation biomes such as the tropical and temperate rainforests. Each year, the taiga receives 30 to 85 cm (12 to 33 in) of precipitation, which come as either snow in the winter or rain and dew in the summer. This extreme climate means that there is little ability for plant species to thrive.

There are some mosses and lichens that are able to survive in the boreal forest, but the majority of plant species are coniferous trees. This includes evergreen spruce, fir, pine, and deciduous larch trees. Over time, they have adapted to the harsh weather conditions. For instance, the conical shape of the tree allows the snow to easily fall off without breaking many branches. The coniferous trees have needle leaves that have little surface area which means that less water is lost through transpiration. This is important because when the ground is frozen, plants have a harder time getting water through their roots. These leaves also have a waxy coating that protects them from drying out due to the wind. Finally, the dark color of the needles has a low albedo, meaning the leaves also help in absorbing more heat from the sun.

Animals found in the Taiga
There is a wide range of fauna in the taiga. The most well-known animal species that can survive there are the mammals. The large predators include lynx, brown and black bears, wolves, and the Siberian tiger. Many of the smaller predators are various types of weasels such as wolverines, fishers, pine martens, minks, ermines, and sables. These animals all tend to feed on smaller prey. Some examples of prey are red squirrels, lemmings, voles, and snowshoe hares. The bears, wolves, and Siberian tigers also include larger herbivores in their diet. Elk, moose, and caribou (or reindeer) are some of these herbivores. They eat the moist mosses and short plants that are found on the ground of the boreal forest.

There are also many bird species that reside in the taiga ecosystem. Although they are adapted to the cold temperatures, many of the birds still migrate south for warmer weather. The birds of prey that can survive in the boreal forest include owls and eagles. They also feed on the smaller mammals listed above. Some other birds that can be found are seed eating birds such as finches and sparrows and insect eating birds such as wood warblers. In the summer, the mosquito populations drastically increase, providing food for the insect eating birds. One of the most common birds of the taiga is the raven. It is an omnivore, meaning it eats both plants and animals, giving it a wide range of food options. Their scavenging abilities also give them the ability to survive by hunting down game such as rodents and the eggs of other birds.

The taiga has cold lakes and rivers that do not have many nutrients, so the fish that are able to survive there are well-adapted. For instance, arctic graylings are the most common fish in the taiga. They find the warmest areas available to lay eggs and then as they grow, they migrate to colder waters. They can also survive underneath the frozen surface of the water.  Some other fish include the Alaska blackfish, brook trout, Siberian taimen, and lake chub. In contrast, reptiles and amphibians are less common because their cold-blooded bodies struggle in the cold climate. The European adder is a snake that lives in the taiga in North America and Europe. The northern leopard frog, American and Canadian toad, and blue spotted salamander are some of the few amphibians there. Both reptiles and amphibians in the Taiga have to hibernate underground in the winter to stay alive.

Issues within the Taiga
The Taiga is full of natural resources that are being exploited. Activities like deforestation, climate change, and mining are some of the main issues the Taiga is facing today. 

Around 29% of the world’s forests are located with the Taiga biome. Having these forests are important for storing carbon. It is stated that more than 300 billion tons of carbon are stored in the boreal forests’ as well as the peatlands located there. When these trees are cut down, the forests are lost as well as the ability to store large amounts of carbon dioxide. Losing these forests to deforestation also wipes out whole habitats, causing native species to move to new places. Clearcutting, the practice of removing every tree in an area, hardly leaves anything behind for new life to start. This can increase the risk of erosion as well as flooding. The reason that deforestation is occurring is for industrial purposes like creating infrastructure as well as making cardboard and paper. The cardboard and paper industry is very important to Canada’s economy, where a large amount of the Taiga is located. 

Climate change is increasing temperatures in the Taiga. Most species here, like the Siberian Tiger, are well suited for the colder temperatures with their thick fur coats. However, with warming temperatures causes these native species to either adapt or find a new place to live. This new climate allows non-native species to move in and can overrun their new habitat. For example, Bark Beetles have been able to infest and even kill whole forests since they prefer the warmer temperatures that the Taiga has been experiencing. 

Climate change also creates unusual weather patterns that can strengthen forest fires. In 2019, Siberia lost 32 million acres of forest from forest fires. Forest fires can be beneficial to forest regrowth, however fires have gotten stronger and more frequent which isn’t allowing forests to naturally balance. Warming temperatures mixed with dryer soils and unusual storms has increased the severity of wildfires as well as increased the length of wildfire seasons. 

In the Taiga, humans are extracting oil, gas, and minerals. Mining and extraction has always been damaging to the environment, but it is even more destructive in a sensitive ecosystem like the Taiga. It increases deforestation, pollution, and human activity in the area. Mining requires clearcutting of forests for a few reasons. The actual site for mining is cleared as well as the space reserved for roads to travel to and from the work site. These roads create habitat fragmentation, which can separate and decay ecosystems as well as get in the way of migratory species. Mining also releases byproducts which pollute waterways and can negatively impact flora and fauna. 

Policies Addressing the Issues
There are ways in which countries and organizations are trying to combat the issues from deforestation, climate change, and mining. The Forest Stewardship Council is a nonprofit whose goal is to encourage responsible management of forests. They have promoted sustainable practices and certifications for timber harvesting. So far, more than 100 million acres of the Taiga are being harvested through this certification which promotes the ecological health of the forest. Another example is shown in the Arkhangelsk’s forest in Russia. Over 740 thousand acres of this forest are now protected through the Dvinsky Reserve. This area of the Taiga has rapidly been decreasing and is also home to an endangered species, the wild forest reindeer. This reserve may be able to help keep some of Europe’s last forests intact and keep more species alive. People are still allowed to enjoy the benefits of the land, but no mining or logging are allowed.

Another example coming from Canada, the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, has major Canadian forest companies and environmental groups working towards more sustainable forestry practices. So far, over 175 million acres of Canada’s forests are under this agreement. In Mongolia, their government has tried to create stricter environmental and forestry laws. However, this hasn’t been enough to stop the removal of about 36,000 football fields of forest a year there. An organization from Germany, GIZ, is aiding Mongolia by training environmental technicians and officers to practice sustainable forest management. Their hopes are to help mitigate further issues with wildfires as well as increase new growth in their forests. 

Unlike deforestation policies, there are few mining policies and they are often poorly executed. In Canada, most provinces still have free-entry mining systems. This system allows prospectors mineral rights without first checking out how this mining could affect ecosystems or communities nearby. This free-entry system has been around for over 150 years, and is allowed in almost all of the boreal forest in Canada. There are almost no requirements or restrictions to hinder the ability to mine once the land has been staked.

How Animals are Affected
Many of the issues stated above have direct negative impacts on the animals that live in the Taiga. Siberian tigers are currently listed as endangered and one reason for this is because of climate change. Their heavy coats and large amounts of body fat are not suited for warm weather. They need to have a colder climate in order to survive. Climate change can also attract non-native species. For instance, bark beetles have infested the taiga and they have done so by laying eggs in bark and killing the entire tree. Their efficient spreading has the ability to kill off entire forests. This, in addition to the human activity of deforestation, results in an incredible loss of trees.

Deforestation is another threat to Siberian tigers and many other animals. It removes the available food and shelter needed for survival. The boreal woodland caribou is another species that is directly affected by deforestation. They are an indicator species, so their health reflects the health of the ecosystem. It has been discovered that in the next 15 years, 30% of the boreal caribou population will decline if nothing is changed. This ultimately means that the greater health of the Taiga is also declining. The loss of biodiversity is a severe result of climate change. Luckily, the boreal caribou are now protected under the Species at Risk Act but this only protects caribou from direct population attacks not indirect concerns such as climate change.

Finally, hunting is another threat to animal species in the taiga. For instance, the Siberian tiger is often hunted as a trophy and even though there are many protection programs, poaching still occurs. They are also hunted for their body parts that are often used in Chinese medicine. Foxes and bears are other animals in the boreal forest that are hunted. Their fur and tough skin are turned into articles of clothing and leather. Although hunting is the least serious threat from human activity, it is still a serious contributor to the decline in many animal populations.

What you can do
There are a few ways that each of us can do to help save the Taiga biome. One being a practice most of us have heard often, “refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle.” A huge reason why deforestation is occurring is from the paper industry. So, by saying no to paper products can go a long way. For example, bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store instead of using their paper bags, or use less napkins when you go out to eat. This will decrease the demand for paper products since you are one less consumer. If you are unable to eradicate your use of paper products, strive to limit your usage of these products. Try to use only one paper towel when you are cleaning or use reusable towels. If you end up getting a paper bag at the grocery store, use that bag for your at home recycling! As for recycling, either use the recycling program your city offers or even start your own composting system. Simple everyday switches can create a large impact.

Another way to help the Taiga would be to know where your products are made and not supporting companies who aren’t helping to solve the issue. The NRDC came out with a list of companies who are demanding more laws for protecting the Taiga. These companies include Amy’s, Ben and Jerry’s, The North Face, etc. These companies are using their voices to help and should be supported. You can also aim to support companies that are trying to reduce their carbon footprint by using sustainably sourced products. 

Lastly, use your own voice. Advocate for stricter laws on mining or more sustainable forestry practices. You can find petitions online to sign, or use social media to spread awareness. Let your friends and family know what is going on in the Taiga and try to get their support as well. Write to politicians about creating better policies. Try to stay up to date on what is going on with the forests so you have reliable and relevant information. Even one person’s voice can make a difference.

Sources: Active Wild, Boreal Songbird Initiative, Deutsche Well, National Geographic, Natural, Resources Defense Council, Radford University, Sciencing, The Sustainability Council, WWF, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science