Temperate vs. Tropical Rainforests: A Quick Primer

tropical rainforest

When someone mentions rainforests, your mind probably conjures up images of monkeys swinging from trees in the Amazon. But the Amazon isn't the only rainforest in the world. Rainforests aren't always in the tropics, either. Quite a few are in temperate regions.

So where are all these rainforests? And what exactly IS a rainforest?

What makes a forest a rainforest? 

Rainforests are tall, dense forests with lots of precipitation. They tend to be ancient; in fact, they're some of the oldest living ecosystems in the world. To make it into the rainforest category, a forest must experience—you guessed it—a lot of rain. Some areas contain pockets of rainforest inside regular, not-quite-as-wet forests.

Temperate vs. tropical

There are two major categories of rainforest: tropical and temperate. Tropical rainforests like the Amazon are the most well-known.

The tropical rainforest is a hot, moist biome where it rains year-round. It's known for its dense canopies of vegetation that form three different layers. The top canopy contains trees that grow upwards of 75 meters. Fun fact: most common houseplants come from the middle layer, or understory, of the rainforest canopy.

Tropical rainforests are located within about 10 degrees of the equator. Their average monthly temperatures top 64° F. Most importantly, tropical rainforests must have a minimum of 1.67 meters of rainfall annually. They can sometimes have almost 10 meters!

Tropical rainforests can be found all over South America, including Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile. You'll also find them in sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Myanmar, and Asia.

Temperate rainforests, on the other hand, aren't nearly as common. They're also defined a bit differently. Although they have to meet minimum rainfall and temperature requirements (1.4 meters and 39° F), other factors come into play, including canopy coverage and method of regeneration.

These forests can be found in the Pacific Northwest of North America and southwestern South America. Pockets of temperate rainforest even pop up in northwestern Europe and Oceania.

A few rainforests you should know about

Now that you know there's more to rainforests than the Amazon, here are a few rainforests you should know about. (Why? Because you're an earthling, and rainforests have a considerable effect on your planet's health.

1. Congolese Rainforest

For as vast as it is, the rainforest of the Congo River basin gets surprisingly little press. It covers more than 175 million hectares and six countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo (ROC), Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon). The Congolese rainforest is the second-largest in the world.

Although it doesn't quite match the Amazon in terms of size, the Congolese rainforest doesn't play second fiddle to any other rainforest in terms of biodiversity. The central African rainforest houses some of the world's most recognizable (and regrettably, most endangered) animals, including gorillas, elephants, hippos, and lions.

2. Valdivian Temperate Rainforest

The Valdivian temperate rainforest is located on the west coast of Argentina and Chile. And you thought the South American rainforest was all about the Amazon!

With the Pacific to the east and the Andes to the west, this long strip of rainforest seems like many forests in one. The climate changes dramatically along its north-south length, and it even has sections of bamboo forest!

3. Tongass National Forest

Covering more than 6.5 million hectares of the Alaskan wilderness, the Tongass National Forest is the world's largest intact temperate rainforest. And what a rainforest it is! Inside its borders, you'll discover fjords, the snowy peaks of the Coastal Mountains, and glaciers. This is also the only place you'll find many of the endangered species of North America. 

Some of the Tongass was sacrificed to logging operations in the past. But the region is now monetized with less harmful industries like tourism, carbon sequestration, and sustainable fishing. However, the US government continues to cast covetous eyes on the Tongass for timber and resource exploitation.

4. Sundarbans

Located in West Bengal, India, and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans cover more than a million hectares. The original multi-purpose site, the Sundarbans is made up of forests and wetlands. It's also home to four different protected UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Another of the Sundarbans' claims to fame is that it's the world's largest contiguous mangrove forest. Mangroves can capture and sequester ten times more carbon than regular trees. They protect coastlines from storm surges, flooding, and sea-level rise.

The Sundarbans contains the world's largest population of tigers. It's also home to the rhesus macaque, crocodiles, rhinos, kingfishers, and many endangered turtle species.

Unfortunately, the rapidly expanding human population is threatening to infringe upon the rainforest. However, local communities are working hard to protect their lands and the plants and animals that live there.

5. Pacific Temperate Rainforests

Yes, Virginia, there are still more rainforests in North America! This one extends from Alaska down to northern California. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) considers this area to be the largest temperate rainforest ecoregion in the world. This coastal stretch of forest is dotted with a few spots of unique rainforest.

For starters, there's the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, comprised of nearly 6.5 million hectares. Also known as the Central and North Coast forest, the Great Bear Rainforest earned its names from the many bear species that call it home. One of those species is the Kermode or Spirit Bear, one in ten of which is entirely white.

Other rainforests in the region feature the Pacific Northwest's fabled giants: the Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and stately redwoods. These trees are famous for their beauty, grandeur, and longevity.

Protect ALL the Rainforests!

There are so many rainforests around the globe and they all need and deserve our attention.

At OMA, we're currently focused on protecting the Amazon, as it truly holds a special place on our heart, and it's truly in most need of protection right now. As we grow, our aim is to help fund protections for other rainforest regions all over the world.

Join us on our mission and help us protect these vital ecosystems, one acre at a time!