The tropical hardwood forests, including rain forests, occur throughout the lowland areas of the tropics—especially along the routes of rivers in Central and South America and in central and W Africa—and in the East Indies, the Malay Peninsula, and parts of India, Indochina, and Australia. They are characterized by an annual rainfall of 160–400 in. (406–1,000 cm) annually, with an average temperature of at least 80°F (27°C), and support a great diversity of plant life. The foliage is a luxuriant and interlaced community from ground level to the tree canopies, and the trees support the omnipresent woody vines (see liana) and air plants (see epiphyte). Although some tropical forests are deciduous, most tropical trees are considered evergreen because their leaves are not shed simultaneously at a certain season; however, they are believed to drop and renew their leaves sporadically each year. Even though they cover only 7% of the earth's landmass, about one half of the planet's species live there.
The temperate hardwood forests of North America, Europe, and Asia are marked by seasonal rainfall distribution. The trees, typically species of beech, maple, ash, oak, elm, and basswood, are deciduous but are often mixed with conifers, especially in areas of poorer soil. The temperate hardwood forests overlap the boreal, or northern, conifer forest belts, which encircle the earth in the subarctic and cool, temperate regions south of the treeless tundra. The vegetation is typically fir and spruce in northern regions and at higher altitudes, and pine, larch, and hemlock in southern regions and at lower altitudes. In transitional areas, especially where there is a pronounced season without rain (e.g., the chaparral and tropical mountain slopes), scrub forests are frequently found in which the trees are more widely spaced and grasses intervene. Nontropical rain forests exist in New Zealand, Tasmania, Chile, and the Pacific coast of North America.
In the United States east of the prairies are the northern (boreal) forest belt, in which sugar maple, beech, and birch mix with the conifers; the hardwood forest belt, a typical temperate forest; and the warmer southern forest belt, encompassing many stands of smaller pines and cypress thickets. In the chiefly coniferous Rocky Mt. forest belt, the Ponderosa pine is most common. The Pacific forest belt has the heaviest stands of trees in America and probably in the world. The characteristic redwood and giant sequoia mingle with Douglas fir and other species.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.