Focusing On The Conservation of Ecosystems, Habitats & Wildlife

Coniferous Forest

FYA: For Your Awareness

Coniferous forests cover about 15% of the earth’s surfaces. It is the largest land habitat on earth. There are over 615 species of conifers, over 30% are in danger of extinction. Coniferous forests take 3 times more carbon dioxide from the air than either temperate or tropical forests. Deforestation and forest destruction is the second leading cause of carbon pollution, causing 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions. In Canada, one acre of forest is cut every 12.9 seconds.

What is a Coniferous Forest?

Coniferous forests are forests of cone bearing trees located primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. Coniferous forests are sometimes called taiga (Russian for coniferous forest) or boreal forests. They are located south of the tundra but north of deciduous forests and grasslands. Trees are soft wood and able to survive long and cold winters.

The trees include pine, fir, spruce, and hemlock, are evergreen (don’t lose their leaves), and have needle-like leaves. They do not bear fruit or flowers but instead they have cones formed in late winter or early spring. There are two types of cones, those with pollen and others that are fertilized by wind-blown pollen. Some conifers such as Lodgepole pine depend on fire to spread their seeds, which can only be released from the cone through heat. Trees like a spruce can retain its needles for fifteen years, while others may keep their needles for up to three years.

Coniferous forests can vary widely in temperature, soil conditions, and types of trees but they all grow best in cold winter climates. Rainfall can be between 10 – 40 inches annually, usually in the summer. There are many lakes that are located in these forests, often formed in the depression of glaciers. Conifers leaves/needles have waxy coatings, and slope downward to protect against freezing and to allow the snow to slide off. Grass grows under the trees when there is enough sunlight and ferns and mosses grow in shaded areas.

Trees that grow in the highest latitude of coniferous forests include spruce, pine, and fir. Cypress, cedar, and redwood are conifers that live in milder climates. Along the California Coast the giant sequoia (redwood) are some of the oldest and tallest living trees, some are 3,000 years old.

Coniferous forests come in two varieties: open, lichen woodland with trees spaced far apart with lichens growing between the trees or closed forests where trees grow very close together with a moss covered floor.

Coniferous forests have two layers, the overstory and understory. The overstory includes some of the tallest trees, including redwoods, cypress and cedar growing up to 368 feet tall. They grow in a pyramid shape and have thick branches that can be close together. Smaller trees and shrubs form the understory layer of the forest. The forest floor can be dark because light doesn’t get through. Needles form a thick blanket where they decompose with help from the funghi on the forest floor.

The long and snow-filled winters make it difficult for animals to find food. Many animals grow heavy winter coats or hibernate (bears), while birds migrate during the winter to warmer climates. The animals that remain awake during winter forage food from moss, lichens, bark, and plants along river banks. Animals found in the coniferous forest include: moose, deer, reindeer, caribou, wolf, lynx, fox, bear, wolverine, beaver, squirrel, and mice. Birds found here include: woodpeckers, tits, crossbills, owls, hawks and grouse. Insects are plentiful in the coniferous forest especially in the spring and summer including wasps, bees, and mosquitoes.

Where are Coniferous Forests located?

Coniferous forests are located in the northern hemisphere and cover large expanses of North America from the Pacific to Atlantic Ocean, across Europe, Russia, Asia, Mongolia, Japan, and China. Conifers thrive in climates with long cold winters with heavy snowfall and short summers.

Why are Coniferous Forests important to protect?

Coniferous forests are important to protect because they cover a large part of the earth’s surface, representing the largest land habitat for plant and animal species; they provide food and shelter for animals and humans; are a source for pharmaceuticals; provide recreation; and filter water and they convert carbon dioxide into oxygen for us to breathe. Coniferous forests take 3 times more carbon from the air than temperate or tropical forests.Conifers are some of the largest, tallest, and oldest trees known to science. They provide humans with a source of fuel and timber for construction of homes and buildings. Many elements found in a home including furniture, fittings, and fixtures were made from coniferous trees. Compounds found within conifers have been synthesized to produce cancer-fighting drugs.  And they provide recreational spaces to enjoy nature.

When are Coniferous Forests under threat?

Coniferous forests are increasingly threatened by many factors, mostly from humans. One of the biggest threats is oil and gas exploration. Large amounts of petroleum are estimated to be buried under these pristine forests in Alaska, Canada, and Russia. With the advances in technology these areas that were formerly inaccessible due to their cold, remote locations can now be evaluated for their oil potential. Coniferous forests are slow growers, so this damage is irreparable.

Another threat is deforestation; even when trees are replanted they are typically one species, leading to monoculture, and they are slow to grow back. This loss of trees contributes to erosion, loss of habitat, and lack of diversity. Ridding the forest of its trees impacts the ability to mitigate the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Remember that coniferous forests generate 3x more oxygen than other types of forests.

Land development and building construction is another threat to coniferous forests whether it is for ski slopes, roads, or housing.  Residential construction uses lots of wood to create homes and furniture. And consumers use paper and paper products with no thought where they came from. The result of all of this demand is the loss of habitat for trees, plants, and animals, causing species extinction. Finally, global warming makes it harder for coniferous forests to survive and and they may be overrun by deciduous trees, which prefer a warmer environment. As global temperatures rise, the stored carbon and methane can be released into the atmosphere which would have damaging consequences to our health.

Who is protecting Coniferous Forests?

The National Resource Defense Council is partnering with local organizations to educate the public and preserve the boreal forest in Canada.

World Wildlife Federation has created protected areas in many countries to protect and preserve species. They created the Global Forest & Trade Network, linking hundreds of companies, forest-dependent communities, non-governmental organizations and entrepreneurs in more than 30 countries to create a market for environmentally responsible forest products. WWF has also created reforestation grants to help replant areas that have lost their trees due to forest fires or logging operations. They also offer conservations grants to help train local communities, stakeholders, park guards and other how to protect their natural resources.

The Forest Stewardship Council‘s mission is to promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world’s forests. Their FSC certification indicates that wood or wood products came from a sustainably managed forest.


How can we protect Coniferous Forests?

There are many actions that you can take to protect coniferous forests. Some of the largest uses of soft wood is for the construction of homes and furniture. By using wood that is FSC certified you ensure that the forests they came from are well managed and not engaged in harmful forest practices. You can reuse wood furniture rather than replacing it, donate used furniture rather then throwing it away, and reuse and re-purpose wood building materials.

Paper is another product created from forests. You can use less paper products, choose paper with recycled content whenever possible, and find reusable alternatives for products such as paper towels and paper cups, which can reduce the number of trees that are cut down. You can also reduce your carbon footprint by driving less often, combining trips, and using other forms of (non-gas) transportation such as biking, walking or public transportation. And you can donate time and money to organizations that are working to preserve and protect coniferous forests.