What are biomes and why are they undergoing a massive transition

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A new study has found that warmer temperatures and high nitrogen content in the soil are pushing the boreal forest, the planet’s largest terrestrial biome, to move north.

The Global Change Biology has published an analysis of satellite images, showing that anthropogenic climate change is now affecting the biome and the entire forest is in motion.

The study was carried out by ecologist Logan Berner and remote sensing expert Scott Goetz, both of Northern Arizona University, and used Landsat satellite imagery from 1985 to 2019 to examine changes in land cover.

Unplash/representation image

Researchers found that in the southern part of the boreal forests, conditions are now too hot and dry for trees to survive. And in the north, the temperatures become more hospitable for trees, such as conifers.

What is a boreal forest?

With more than 25% of the planet’s forest area, the boreal forest is the largest terrestrial biome in the world. These are also known as “taiga”. The boreal ecozone mainly spans eight countries, namely Canada, China, Finland, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The largest boreal forest in the world is found in Russia, which stretches about 5,800 km from the Pacific Ocean to the Ural Mountains.

Taiga play a major role in the Earth’s climate and biodiversity. The name boreal comes from “boreas”, which means the Greek god of the north wind. Taiga refers to the more arid northern regions of the biome, while Boreal is used for the more temperate southern zone.

Taiga helps store carbon

Boreal forest
Unsplash/representative image

These are cold forests located in the subarctic region. It lies between the tundra in the north and the temperate forests in the south. Boreal landscapes are identified by low tree species diversity, and Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia have taigas.

The two main types of boreal forest are the closed canopy forest and the high boreal forest. The forest is home to a wide range of animals, with over 85 species of mammals, 130 species of fish, some 32,000 species of insects and 300 species of birds.

The boreal forest stores a significant amount of carbon. The soil is often acidic, due to falling pine needles, and poor in nutrients because the cold temperatures don’t allow much foliage to rot and turn into soil.

Movement to the north of the forest

Prior to the work of Berner and Goetz, the northward movement of forests was projected due to climate change. However, it is uncertain whether the biome has ever shifted.

Berner and Goetz based their conclusions on Greening and Browning. Warmer temperatures lead to longer growing seasons and rapid forest development in northern latitudes. While in the southern part, it is too hot to support forest growth leading to browning.

Comparing greening and browning rates from 1985 to 2019 with a database of soil nitrogen levels revealed a previously overlooked effect. It showed that regions with greening tended to have high levels of nitrogen in the soil.

Another nail in the coffin

Boreal forest
Unsplash/representative image

Greening and browning will have a trickle-down effect that will include changes in wildlife, temperature levels, droughts and wildfires. This change could have serious implications for the boreal forest biome in the coming decades.

In an interview with CTV News Canada, a researcher said, “This clearly shows that one of the largest biomes in the world is in the midst of a massive transition… This puts another nail in the coffin by showing what change climate is doing to our planet.”

He added: “With continued climate change, we are likely to see a contraction of the boreal forest as a whole, as the rate at which trees are dying is much faster than the rate at which they can grow.”

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