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Definition: taiga from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1888) : a moist subarctic forest dominated by conifers (as spruce and fir) that begins where the tundra ends


Summary Article: boreal forest (taiga) from Environmental History and Global Change: A Dictionary of Environmental History

The world’s largest biome (18 million km2). Forms an almost continuous belt across Alaska, N Canada, Scandinavia and Russia. Covers 11% of the earth’s surface in sub-arctic and cold continental areas and as a mountain biome in areas like S Chile and the W Cordillera of the USA where giant redwoods (sequoias) in California are up to 100 m tall. Its boundaries are not clear as it extends well into the tundra in sheltered areas, as far as 72°N in Siberia. Climate is distinguished by severe, long winters and cool summers with mean temperatures rarely about 15°C and a short growing season. Precipitation is low with a summer maximum. Permafrost is widespread. There may be extensive wetland areas, e.g. the Canadian muskeg. Vegetation can vary greatly with local climate and soil conditions. Boreal forest only has two or three layers: the trees themselves, sometimes a limited shrub layer and the ground layer of mosses, lichens and flowering plants. A thick layer of acid leaf litter reduces ground cover. The range of tree species is limited: spruce, fir, pine and larch, with some broadleaved deciduous species like alder, birch and willow. Trees are shallow rooted above iron pan podsols and permafrost which are impenetrable to tree roots. Exploitation is focused on hunting for furs and timber extraction, which has led to extensive loss of forests in Europe, Canada and Russia; regeneration is slow. Boreal forests often have a long history of fire episodes: in Wisconsin every 100-140 years and in SW Nova Scotia every 250-350 years (Bryant et al. 1997, Gillet 2005, Simmons 1989).

Boreal forests may seem like wilderness landscapes but they have a long history of human impact, beginning soon after deglaciation with the first hunter-gatherers. This has affected the structure and species composition of the forests. By C.AD800 the Sami had evolved a reindeer-herding economy. In northern Scandinavia, when there was deep snow on the ground during the winter, the Sami chopped down trees with lichen-encrusted bark for winter fodder for their reindeer when they could not eat lichens on the ground. The stumps of these trees can still be seen in areas untouched by modern forestry (Berg et al. 2011). In Scandinavia, while agriculture was introduced to the coastal areas of N Sweden in the early centuries AD, over most of the interior it was not established until the C18-19. The most significant modern conflict is between commercial forestry and reindeer herding, and in some areas mining. The forests contain archaeological and ecological evidence of human occupation over long time periods. In Scandinavia Sami sites spanning 8,000 years with remains of hearths, cooking pits and hut foundations are becoming better understood (östlund & Bergman 2006) (see treeline).

Copyright © 2013 Ian D. Whyte

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