Ancient Greeks depicted the god of the north wind, Boreas, with flying hair and beard, an image anyone who has spent a winter in Estes Park can relate to. Besides blowing through the park, Boreas makes his appearance in the use of the adjective “boreal” to describe plants and animals with a relationship to an ecosystem that is generally found further north.
The boreal forest is the name given to a wreath of green that encircles the earth just south of the Arctic Circle. In North America the boreal forest extends from Alaska to Newfoundland before continuing across Scandinavia and the former Soviet Union where it is usually called the taiga. Conifers dominate the boreal forest with deciduous trees found in limited areas along streams or near lakes. Also characteristic of the boreal ecosystem are bogs, fens, and shallow lakes. Winters are long and severe (up to six months with mean temperatures below freezing) and summers short (50-100 frost-free days.)
The multi-continent, circum-polar boreal forest comprises Earth’s largest temperate ecosystem covering 16.6 square miles, one third of the planet’s forested area. The boreal forest is so large that in the northern summer, when boreal photosynthesis peaks, world-wide levels of carbon dioxide fall and world-wide levels of oxygen rise.
Much of the park’s spruce-fir forest likely meets the temperature requirements to be “boreal.” It is inhabited by many of the same species (or ones very similar) as those found in the boreal forests of Canada, Europe, and Asia. Beaver, black bear, snowshoe hare, and ermine are mammal species that can be found worldwide in the boreal forest. And the raven and red cross-bills are birds seen around the world in this high latitude northern habitat. In some cases, Rocky Mountain National Park represents the southern limit for a boreal species. For example, feather moss, a species that occurs in Colorado only in the park, is a rare understory plant here but quite common in boreal forests of Canada and Scandinavia. Likewise boreal owls and lynx occur here rarely. With present climate conditions the park is likely at the edge of their range. The park's ecological connections to the boreal even include a distinctive soil type, Colorado’s first known spodosol (a classic boreal soil order) has been found at Hidden Valley.
Boreas had three wind brothers: Zephyr (west), Notus (south), and Eurus (east). However, only his name survives as a root word in common English usage.