The  Forests of Europe


I won't claim to have traveled extensively in Europe, but I must say that my brief experiences there have been a bit surprising.  The forests there were not quite what I had expected, and trying to resolve what I saw from what I expected led me to ask a number of questions - and even come up with a few answers.

The first thing that struck me as odd was the lack of diversity in the trees.  This has been discussed by a number of authors, and one conclusion is that this is a relict of glaciation.  Simply put, in North America forests were free to move south when the glaciers approached and then move back north as the glaciers retreated.  In Europe, east-west running mountains prevented this movement, and as a result most of the cold-sensitive deciduous trees were killed.  The forests that grew back came from a limited stock, and from species that were among the more cold-tolerant, such as beeches, birches and their kin.

I was also expecting to see forests that were more transitional between southern deciduous forests and northern coniferous forests.  I didn't see any of this (except in Germany; back to that in a minute), and a trip on the internet soon showed me why.  I was mostly in Belgium and France, and among the cities I visited were Brussels, Paris and Strasbourg.  If you look at the Whittaker diagram to the right, you will see that of these, only Brussels is solidly in the climate space for the temperate forest.  Paris and Strasbourg are actually more in the grassland climate space!  This brought up another question - isn't Europe supposed to be dreary and wet?  The Gulf Stream, which brings extra warmth to Europe, should also bring additional water, right? According to the information I was able to gather, Marietta is actually much wetter than Paris.  Why?  I went online looking for answers, thinking that perhaps it was the heavy summer thunderstorms that come to Marietta - and not to western Europe - that provided Marietta with the extra water.  That wasn't the case, however:

Note that the scales for precipitation are unequal.  In the winter, Marietta gets 2 to 3 times the precipitation that Strasbourg does; in the summer it's about double.  Marietta is also the recipient of a lot of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, but it gets that water more directly.  Paris (left) shows a similar pattern to Strasbourg.

So, the first lesson about preconceptions is that they don't always hold up to close scrutiny.  Munich, in Germany, is closer to the center of the temperate forest climate space than any of the cities I visited.  Second, it doesn't take a lot of rain to make a day dreary - cloud cover and mist will do the same.

I also started looking for where the transition to coniferous forest would begin; looking at the Whittaker diagram above it would seem to be somewhere near Helsinki.

So, what did I see?  Well, one trip was in the winter and I didn't see much of the forests on that trip.  A later trip, in September, provided a little more insight.  To understand the forests I saw, you need to keep 3 things in mind.  First,  because of the prior history of glaciation and the lack of southern refuges, overall diversity of the forests in Europe is lower than in American forests. One side effect of this is the fact that autumn in Europe is much more boring than it is in Ohio.  Most of the trees simply have their leaves turn brown and fall; there is no explosion of color. Second,   Europe is heavily populated - and has been for a long time.  This means that the forests have seen extensive human modification.  Forests have been cleared for agriculture, for timber and for fuel, and the remaining forests are often heavily managed.  Managed forests may be maintained for only a few preferred timber species; as a result overall diversity may be low. Also, city forests are composed of trees able to survive in the tough city environment.  Third, the same effects of altitude on forests works in Europe as well as it does in the United States.

Of course, Europe is a big place and I've only been to a corner of it.  Remember that in southern Europe there is a Mediterranean climate and the forests are dominated by the oaks, whose thick, fire-resistant bark gives us cork (right).  We're going to look at low-altitude forests in Belgium and higher-altitude forests in Germany. 


Flying into Brussels you can see the woodlots and forests.  Much as in the midwestern USA forests are reduced to these small patches, scattered across the landscape (left).  A city forest in Brussels (below left) is dominated by deciduous trees, many of which are beeches.  The hilly Ardennes (below) show a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees.  This area is at a higher altitude and thus has a cooler climate, favoring the conifers over the more cold-sensitive deciduous trees. This photo was taken somewhere near the Belgium/Luxembourg border. 


Left: Coniferous forest in Germany, the Schwarzwald (Black Forest).  This forest is at an altitude of about 1070 meters (3510 ft).  To make hiking easier, the countour lines are painted on the trail (below); this point is shown by the circle in the image to the left.

Below, two views from two different continents.  On the left is a view from the southern flank of the Hornisgrinde, a 1,164m (3,819) foot mountain in the Schwarzwald.  The haze is the result of air pollution from the Rhine valley to the east.  Below, a similar landscape from a similar altitude in West Virginia.  In both landscapes farming (dairy, orchards, pasture) is interspersed with forests consisting mostly of conifers.

Allerheiligen in the Schwarzwald.  This mountain valley was the site of a 13th century church, and thus has been the site of human occupation for over 800 years.  The forest is a mix of conifers and deciduous trees, with the latter being more common along the stream (above) carving its way through the valley in a series of 7 waterfalls (below).  The very steep slopes do not seem amenable to much in the way of forest management, and this may be the least managed of the forests I was able to see in a brief trip.


Two more photos from Allerheiligan; on the right is another view of the ruins of the 13th century church.  An abbey on the site was responsible for the agriculture in the valley for many years; today a guesthaus, a small store and a restaurant serve the tourists coming to see the ruins and the waterfalls.   To the left, the regions eponymous Black Forest Cake, served with an unidentified beverage. 

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