Into the Wild

Momentum compares notes between two natural wonders.

BY TODD REUBOLD

While forests cover 30 percent of Earth’s total land area, there are only two major, intact virgin woodlands: the northern boreal forest stretching from North America to Scandinavia and across Russia, and the tropical rainforests of Central America, South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Both play distinct roles in shaping our global environment.

Tropical Rainforest

Tropical RainforestName: Nicknamed “the world’s largest pharmacy” because more than 25 percent of modern medicines originate from tropical rainforest plants.

Flora and fauna: A typical four square-mile patch contains as many as 1,500 flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 400 species of birds and 150 species of butterflies.

Area: Covers just 2 percent of Earth’s surface, yet houses more than half of the world’s plant and animal species.

Rainfall: 80 to 450-plus inches per year.

Carbon Storage: Carbon stored in forest biomass decreased in Africa, Asia and South America between 1990 and 2005.

Natural Capital: Rainforests play a critical role in maintaining biological diversity, modulating precipitation, infiltration and flooding, and increasing scientific knowledge, among other ecosystem services.

Soil: Despite an abundance of decaying forest biomass, heavy rainfall and runoff result in poor soils deficient in soluble nutrients.

Boreal Forest

Boreal ForestName: The term “boreal” originates from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. “Boreal forest” is typically used to refer to the central and southerly part of the biome, while “taiga” is often used to describe the barren northern areas of the Arctic tree line.

Flora and fauna: Mainly coniferous trees such as larch, spruce, fir and pine; inhabited by woodpeckers, hawks, moose, bears, weasels, lynx, fox, wolves, deer, hares, chipmunks, shrews, bats and other animals.

Area: Biggest terrestrial ecosystem in the world.

Rainfall: 7-29 inches per year.

Carbon Storage: Holds 22 percent of all terrestrial carbon—nearly twice as much per unit area as tropical forests.

Natural Capital: In the Canadian boreal forest, the economic value of water filtration, flood control and carbon storage is more than double that of traditional industries such as forestry, mining, hydropower, and oil and gas extraction.

Soil: Typically thin and nutrient-poor, lacking the organically-enriched profile of more temperate deciduous forests.

Illustrations: Russell Charpentier


SOURCES: Encyclopedia of Earth, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, International Boreal Conservation Campaign, Nature Conservancy, Pembina Institute, Wikipedia