Temperate Rain Forest

Temperate rain forest, especially the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest United States, vs. tropical forests, plus photos and details.

Various rain forests are located around the world. They come in two types, tropical and temperate.

As a whole, coastal temperate rain forests (a sub-set of the temperate variety of rainforest) encompass only 1/5 of 1% of the Earth's surface. They can be found in New Zealand and Southeast Australia; the southwest coastal areas of South America; Norway and other parts of Northern Europe; Asia, Taiwan and Japan; and small tracts inland around the Black and Caspian Seas.

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And also, of course, in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where our west coast temperate rainy forests stretch from southeast Alaska to southern Oregon.

The definition of the meaning of "rain forest" varies from country to country. Parameters may also differ from region to region depending on the particular features of that region.  

But however you define it, three things must be in place in order to label an ecosystem a "rain forest:"

  1. Proximity to oceans
  2. Proximity to mountains
  3. The combination of the two must result in high moisture: combinations of rainfall, upper elevation snow, rivers, streams, fog and mist. 

For example, the temperate rain forests of the west Olympic Peninsula easily fulfill all three, since they are located on the west slopes of the Olympic Mountain range next to the Pacific Ocean, and receive on average 12 to 14 feet of rain each year.

Photos of the Hoh Rain Forest here.

The largest tract of untouched temperate rain forest in North America is found in British Columbia. It too is situated between the Coastal Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean.

In the U.S., significant logging operations before the establishment of the Olympic National Park in 1909 occurred throughout the Pacific Northwest, including the Olympic Peninsula. Nevertheless, some stands of old growth can still be found. Some old-growth trees are reported to be 1,000 years old or more.

(Click here for photos of the world's largest Sitka Spruce!)

The Pacific Northwest temperate rain forest is one of only seven in the world and the only one in North America.

Note that the rain forest in the Pacific Northwest is a coastal temperate, as opposed to a tropical, rain forest. Pacific Northwest temperatures seldom exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit and freezes are rare. The average summertime temperature is just 69 degrees Fahrenheit, while winter temps might drop to the mid-30's Fahrenheit. 

Due to the large amount of rain and relatively mild climate, some conifer species in the Pacific Northwest can reach up to 300 feet in height and 58+ feet in diameter.  The only real dangers to the area are landslides, high winds, avalanches and floods. 

Synergism of Forest and Sea

The two systems - forest and sea - are inextricably and synergistically intertwined.

Lowland valleys rise up to mountainous terrain, from which nutrients from decaying matter find their way into streams and rivers flowing into the sea providing nutrients to support marine life.

The sea in turn, provides the rain, wind, and climatic conditions necessary to create and support the rainforest biome.

As the sea air laden with moisture rises up the flanks of the nearby mountains, it cools and then precipitates as copious rainfall on the western flanks of the mountains. (A rainshadow may persist on the other side of the mountains.)

The fervent growth and copious moisture within this rainy ecosystem, or biome, produces an abundance of pine needles, twigs and leafy matter that falls to the forest floor, decaying and providing rich soil to support a large ecosystem. The rain forest biome is rich enough to support all its denizens, including various migratory species as they journey through.

Pacific Northwest
Rain Forest Flora and Fauna

Over a hundred varieties of mosses festoon the branches of cedar, alder, Sitka spruce and Douglas firs while licorice fern, cat-tail moss and lungwort cling to the understory branches of big-leaf maples, vine maples and dogwood. All of that shades a carpet of lady ferns, lichens, liverwort and sword ferns, with the shamrock-shaped Oregon wood sorrel (Oxalis oregona) filling in the blanks.

Cutthroat and steelhead trout populate the rivers, lakes and streams. Several species of salmon are keystone species within the temperate rain forest, the nutrients of their bodies feeding both plants and animals after each spawning season.

Bears munch salmonberries and huckleberries, dining on salmon during the salmon runs. Red cross-bills pry seeds from fir-cones, while mule-deer and Roosevelt elk prune just about everything. Great horned owls guard the night as voles, deer mice and shrews scurry to stay out of sight.

Salamanders and lizards gather 'round to hear Pacific tree frogs voice their opinions. 

Tiny wrens flit between branches singing for their suppers, bald eagles swoop for salmon, ravens, crows, and stellar jays dip and dive within the canopy of trees.

Eagles and weasels; bears, bobcats and mountain lions; fishers and foxes; all have a place in the chain of command here. 

The North American coastal temperate rain forest biome supports an astonishing number of life forms:

  • Approximately 350 species of birds and animals (including 48 of amphibians and reptiles
  • 25 species of trees
  • Hundreds of other species of flora
  • Hundreds of species of fungi and lichens
  • Thousands of species of insects, mites, spiders, soil organisms

Some scientists suggest that the North American temperate rain forest may contain the highest fungal and lichen diversity of any forest system.

Many saplings thriving on a fallen nurse tree. In 100 years, one may find a colonnade right here.Many saplings thriving on a fallen nurse tree. In 100 years, one may find a colonnade right here.

Temperate Rain Forest Traits

Colonnade of hemlocks near Lake Crescent WAColonnade of hemlocks near Lake Crescent WA

Nurse Trees
When one of the giant trees falls, perhaps by high winds, it can take up to 100 years to decompose, leaving plenty of time for its remains to support the next generation. These are commonly called nurse trees because their decaying structures nourish the seedlings that have sprouted on top of the log for many decades, until they are nearly giants themselves.

Stilt Trees
As these saplings grow, their roots can stretch around the nurse tree, thickening and strengthening as the tree grows. When the nurse tree has finally disintegrated, the empty hole where the nurse tree once lay becomes evident. Trees that got their start on a nurse tree sometimes look like they are standing on stilts because of the hole circumscribed by the protruding roots.

Stands of colonnade trees (pictured above) result from the saplings that have grown up all in single file along the length of a fallen nurse tree. See Hoh Rainforest.

To walk through a temperate rain forest is to slip into an other-worldly and ancient environment where the cycle of life and death is evident, passing from sire to abundant offspring in the continuing nurture of itself. 

Footsteps are softened by carpets of moss, leaf litter, and shamrock-shaped Oxalis.

Senses are calmed and re-prioritized.

Nature has a way of restoring our souls, pressing its wisdom into us, reminding us of who we really are.

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> Temperate Rain Forest

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