The taiga is the extensive, sub-Arctic evergreen forest of Russia. The largest of the five primary natural zones in Russia, covering an area about the size of the United States. , it lies south of the tundra and contains mostly coniferous spruce, fir, cedar, and larch. In the northeastern portion of this belt, long and severe winters frequently bring the world's coldest temperatures for inhabited areas. The taiga zone extends in a broad band across the middle latitudes, stretching from the Finnish border in the west to the Verkhoyansk Range in northeastern Siberia and as far south as the southern shores of Lake Baikal. Isolated sections of taiga also exist along mountain ranges such as the southern part of the Urals and in the Amur River valley bordering China in the Far East. About 33 percent of Russia's population lives in this zone, which, together with a band of mixed forest to its south, includes most of the European part of Russia and the ancestral lands of the earliest Slavic settlers. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996]

The forested area extending across Russia and Scandinavia—which is mostly comprised of the Russian taiga—is regarded as the world's largest single forest. The Russian taiga accounts for 57 percent of world's conifer forest and 23 percent of all the world's woodlands. The Siberian taiga is larger than Amazonia. It covers 2.3 million square miles and holds a forth of the world's timber reserves and stores 40 million tons of carbon dioxide.

The taiga forests are made up of mostly normal size and stunted pines, birch, hemlock, spruce, alder and Siberian larch. About 25 percent of Russia's original forest are intact. These are the largest remaining stands of timber in the world. They provide good shelter for black bears, musk deer, squirrels, lemmings, voles, and mice. There are also moose, reindeer, sable, weasels, otter, beaver, lynx, wolves, swans, eagles and other animals.

Birch are common throughout the taiga. In the western taiga, there is a lot of Scotch pine and spruce. In the east larch is widespread. On drier ground in the mountains you can find great Siberian stone pine, a tree which produces lots of nuts eaten by animals, particularly wild boars which in turn are favorite food of Siberian tigers. In European Russia, where the summers are longer and rain is more abundant you can find more broad-leafed deciduous trees. Most of this land however has been plowed up for agriculture.

Boreal Forests

The taiga of Russia is mostly boreal forest. The boreal forest is a term used to describe the great northern forest that circles the northern part of the globe. It covers one third of the earth's wooded land. Half the boreal forest is in Russia. A third is in Canada. The remainder is in Scandinavia and Alaska. “Boreal” mean “northern.” [Source: Fen Montaigne, National Geographic, June 2002]

The boreal forest is mostly made up of normal size and stunted pines, birch, hemlock, fir, spruce, aspen and Siberian larch. It begins where the temperate forests of oak and maple leave off and continues north past the Arctic Circle to where stunted pine and larch give way to tundra. The name of the forest is derived from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind.

There is often no forest understory like there is in a tropical rain forest, which is dominated by a sun-blocking canopy. The boreal forest floor is carpeted by ferns, lichens, moss and piles of pine cones and needles, with fallen branches and logs here and there. In some places the forest is an endless patchwork of pine groves, peat bogs, ponds and lakes.

There are different ecosystems: wet and dry, hardwood and evergreen. The wetland areas ate particularly important as breeding grounds for birds.

Environment of Boreal Forests

The shade provided by boreal forest trees is ideal for grasses, mosses, lichens, berries and mushrooms. These in turn provide food for animals like lemmings, voles, squirrels and mice. There are also moose, reindeer, sable, weasels, bear, otter, beaver, lynx, wolves, swans, eagles and other birds. In some places you can even find orchids. Even so there is much less biodiversity in a boreal forest than in the rain forest. There are 3,270 plant species in Canada compared to 29,375 in Indonesia.

The plants, animals and people found in the boreal forest are able to withstand extreme cold and constant change. The winters are long and cold. The summers are short and cool. The growing season is very brief. The low-horizon light during the summer casts everything in a unworldly glow.

The boreal forests are home to billions of birds, including ducks, geese and songbirds. Some winter in the tropical areas. Many birds we are familiar with in the mid latitudes—warblers, sparrows, ducks and shorebirds—breed and spend their summers in the boreal forest.

Boreal forests are just as important as rain forests in terms of absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. The thin soils found in boreal forest are called podsol.

Humans and Animals in the Taiga

Dunishenko and Kulikov wrote: "In flying from Vladivostok as far as Irkutsk, or from Khabarovsk to Okhotsk, the endless chain of mountains and an unending network of rivers, streams and valleys might impress a person as an enormous territory with no people. But if the same person were to repeat the route at a lower altitude, say in a helicopter, he would recognize that the seeming “lack of people” is only relative. Even hundreds of kilometers away from major cities, there is evidence of humans: hundreds of forest roads from which emanate even more trails and snowmobile tracks; forest huts spun out like a spider web; ski trails twisting in all directions. And if the idea were to pop into your head to settle a forest valley, well, you would quickly find out that these days, hardly any “free” territory is left in the taiga at all. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]

"The taiga is bristling with life. Tens of thousands of taiga hunters pursue the wildlife that is their bread and butter. The taiga is also home to large predators: wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines. There are also smaller animals: fox, sable, weasel and ermine. Each animal eats some other kind of animal as part of an intricate, interdependent food chain. And all of them are, to one degree or another, being drawn into the economic life of humans. ~~

"And because they are a part of the economic reality of the region, these wild animals have to be counted in the wild. A census isn’t a simple matter and the effort takes a lot of planning. But then again, this makes sense. Farmers and cattle ranchers cannot operate without knowing the condition of their stock: how many bulls, how many pregnant cows, how many young and old are in their herds. One has to obtain reliable information on population growth rates, on herd structure, to make an economic go of raising cattle. If you don’t have data on your herd, you’ll go bust! ~~

"The theory is much the same in the taiga, except that the factors affecting wildlife in the taiga are much complex: there are losses from heavy snowfall and other weather phenomena; there are changes in the environment caused by humans, including timber harvest, forest fires, and unaccounted for losses through poaching. There are also the activities of other predators, population mechanics, and socio-economic factors. One needs to know the number of resources so as to draw down only “a percent of the total capital” and to avoid permanent declines. ~~


The majority of trees in the taiga and borneal forest are conifers. Conifers a tree which bears cones and have needle-like or scale-like leaves that are typically evergreen. Conifers are the main source of softwood timber, and also supply resins and turpentine. The group includes pines, firs, spruce, cedar and other cone-bearing trees and shrubs, and also the yews and their allies that bear drupelike seeds. Conifers fill about a third of the world's forest and include among their members the largest (Sequoias), oldest (bristlecones) and tallest (redwoods) living things.

Adaptions by pine trees for cold weather include: 1) downward sloping branches (rather than ones that reach for the sunlight in the sky), which help shed large deposits snow; and 2) needle-like leaves with a thick waxy rind and little freezable sap. Conifers are more energy effiicient than deciduous trees because by retaining their leaves they use up less energy than shedding and regrowing leaves.

Conifer trees grow more rapidly in the summer and produce tree rings. They protect their trunks from insect attacks and damage with resin, a gummy substance with a liquid part (turpentine) that evaporates quickly, leaving behind a sticky mound that seals a wound on the tree like the scab on a cut. Fossilized resin becomes amber.

In the western taiga, there is a lot of Scotch pine and spruce. On drier ground in the mountains you can find great Siberian stone pine, a tree which produces lots of nuts eaten by animals, particularly wild boars which in turn are favorite food of Siberian tigers. Cedars are sometimes called the “bread-tree” in Siberia because of the food and medicines that are derived from them. Edible oil and heavy cream are pressed from the wood. The same oil is used to treat a number of illnesses including nervous conditions and ulcer.

Conifer Reproduction

Conifers produce pollen (small wind-blown spores) and cones with seeds (eggs) on the same tree. When the pollen lands of the egg-bearing cone it develops into a long tube which burrows in cone for a year to reach the egg. When the tube is complete the sperm descends down the tube and fuses with the egg. Unlike more primitive plants conifers don’t need water to fertilize the egg.

The fertilized conifer egg remains in the cone for more than a year. Food supplies are laid down in the cells and surrounded by waterproof coats. Two years after the fertilization process began, the segments of the cone open up and out drop seeds (the eggs) which can survive for years until enough water enters them to germinate.

The pollen of some pine tress contain bladders that help them fly. In some places so much pollen is released it produces films of thick crud on the shores of lakes. In Japan many people are allergic to cedar pollen.

Many seedlings of coniferous trees get their starts on the trunks of fallen trees of the same species. This is because the trunks lift them above the shade-living plants such as ferns that block out light on the forest floor and the tree trunks hold water that the seedlings can absorb with their roots.

Deciduous Trees

Deciduous is a term typically used in order to refer to trees or shrubs that lose their leaves seasonally (most commonly during autumn). Deciduous means "falling off at maturity" or "tending to fall off". Temperate forests are typically dominated by deciduous trees. There are less common but exist in taiga and boreal forests.

Winter causes problems for plants in two ways: 1) there is less sunlight and cold temperatures can kill leaves by freezing the water in them; and 2) the water in the ground can be frozen and inaccessible for the roots. Trees deal with this by shedding their leaves to conserve their energy for spring. As the valuable chlorophyll is drawn from the leaves. The chemicals left behind produce the yellows, oranges and reds associated with autumn.

Many temperate trees produce rings. The rings are formed in the winter when growth is slow and the wood is dense. In the summer the growth is more rapid and the wood is less dense. The rapid growth in the summer and slow growth and shrinking of cells as winter approaches causes tree rings. Climatic conditions can be determined by the width of the rings. Good years with lots of growth produce wide rings. Bad years with slow growth produce narrow rings.

Most trees rely on wind to spread their pollen. They produce small flowers to produce pollen that barely look like flowers.

Birches and Larch

Birch is a deciduous tree. There are around 60 different species of birch that grow in temperate climate around the world. Birch requires well-drained soil, enough moisture and direct sunlight for the proper growth. It usually grows near the lakes and rivers. Birch is known as pioneer species because it easily populates habitats destroyed by fire.

Birch trees grow in northern areas and colder temperate places They are smaller and live a shorter time (50 to 60 year) than trees such as oaks and elms. Birches grow fast and survive well in cold climates. Further south they are displaced over time by larger hardwoods White birches ate in fact brown-barked alders covered by white lichens.

Larches are conifers that grow 20 to 45 meters tall (65 to 147 feet) and are native to much of the cooler temperate northern hemisphere. They among the dominant plants in the immense boreal forests of Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia. Although a conifer, the larch is a deciduous tree and loses its leaves in the autumn. The needles turn yellow and fall in the late autumn, leaving the trees leafless through the winter. Larch cones are erect, small and green or purple, ripening brown five to eight months after pollination.

Birch are common throughout the taiga. In the east larch is widespread. Larch do best in the coldest eastern parts of Siberia because by shedding their leaves they cut down on water loss and have shallow root systems which are suited for the permafrost. In some forest in the Far East Siberian larch make up 38 percent of the trees. These gnarled trees may be 500 years old but only 20 or 30 feet tall.


Ferns are common in both northern forests and tropical rain forests. They were among the earliest woody plants. They emerged about 350 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs and flowering plants. Some were the size of trees. Ferns have a different vocabulary to describe them than trees. Their leaves are called fonds. Their stems are known as rhizomes.

Found in a variety of habitats, ferns have stems with strong woody vessels that transport water and allow the plant to grow upwards to obtain light. There are both deciduous and evergreen varieties. Most ferns thrive in the shade and do best in wooded areas, where they can grow in great multitudes on the forest floor.

Ferns reproduce without flowers or seeds. Instead they produce millions of microscopic spores that are each a single-celled organism. Ferns grow in a complex two-stage growing process that wasn’t even understood until powerful microscopes were invented. First, the spores develop into filmy plants called thalluses that release sex cells from their underside, where there is usually a constant supply of moisture. Second, after the eggs have been fertilized, they grow into tall plants like the previous spore-producing generation.

Environmental Damage of Boreal Forests

The boreal forests are still largely intact. They are sparsely inhabited and have not suffered the destruction that tropical rain forests have. But that doesn't mean the boreal forests have escaped unscathed. They have been degraded by logging, mining, oil and gas drilling, oil pipeline spills, and flooding from hydroelectric dams. Old growth forest have been clear cut and lost to fires set by human carelessness. The habitat of wild animals has been harmed.

Global warming is expected to dry out the boreal forests and increase the chances of fires and allow pest to migrate from the south northwards in boreal forest regions. There are also worries that global warming could speed up decomposition of peat lands and melt the permafrost would more global-warming-causing carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere.

The boreal forest however can display incredible resilience. Places that were devastated by oil spills thirty years now have thick stands of 20-for-high pine trees growing from oil-fouled soil. The Russians have had great success in reclaimed areas spoiled by oil spills by planting cattails in the oily muck. The cattails draw in toxins and help dry out the soil. In areas where they has been an oil spill, the oil is collected. What remains is either burned off or buried using a bulldozer.

The interests of conservationists often clashes with that of businessmen and working people who need jobs. Even so some oil companies are making an effort to place their wells away from wetlands and have developed strategies for reforesting degraded land. Most timber companies have stopped clear cutting. They leave behind clusters of trees so the forest regenerates the way same way it does after a fire.

Forest Fires in the Boreal Forest

Even though the boreal forest may appear very green and damp, it receives relatively little rain and is susceptible to fires, Every year huge fores, caused by lighting and man, destroy as many trees as logging. Fores are essential to the regeneration of the forest. After a fire larch is the first to appear, followed by pine, spruce and fire.

The taiga forests in northern China are incredibly prone to forest fries and the they sometimes spread into Russia. Many are started by careless people, The effort to put them out are hampered by a shortage of firefighting equipment and helicopters. The Great Black Dragon fire in May 1987, burned for more than a month and devastated more than 46,000 square miles on the Russian side of the Amur and around 5,000 square miles on the Chinese side. China and the Soviet Union did not cooperate at all in fighting the fires.

A forest fire in 1998, damaged two million hectares, an area the size of Michigan, of forest in the Kharbarovks region of Russia's far east. Over 200 square miles of forest in a single night. The carbon dioxide released was equivalent of 4 percent of the carbon dioxide produced annually worldwide from man-made sources.

Major fires struck throughout Russia in the summer of 2002. Almost 25,000 individual fires were reported across 2.5 million acres of land. At one point 250,000 acres was on fire. In May, 2002 is a half dozen locations in Siberia and the Far East were engulfed in smoke from fire. In August 2002, Moscow was shrouded in haze and smoke from peat and forest fires fueled by unseasonably high temperatures and dry conditions. The visibility was less than 50 meters in some places. People with asthma were told to leave the area. Old people were told to stay indoors. Emergency officials said it was the worst smog in 30 years.

Smoldering peat fires are particularly worrisome. They produce a lot of smoke and are difficult to put out. Tons of water and sand can be poured on them in an attempt to smother them but they can continue to smolder underground for months, even years. The only thing that can put them out is continuous rain that lasts for a long time.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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