Pennsylvania Coal Country: Biomes You’ve Never Heard Of

(New special interest dropped)

The other day a post by came across my dash. It’s about the limits of Google, and canebrakes, and ‘unknown’ biomes and… If you are interested in ecology, conservation, or biology, you should read it. It got me thinking, and I realized something. I’ve noticed multiple biomes around me I never learned about in school. I just never thought of them as biomes.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows my stuff that what we learned in high school bio class was… less than complete, yah? Well, what they taught us about biomes was also less than complete. Not only are the biomes they taught us about (temperate forest, rainforest, grassland, etc) more complicated than they taught us, there are biomes they never taught us about that don’t fit into those categories (like canebrakes or rock outcroppings).

Here in Pennsylvania Coal Country (aka the Anthracite Region), I’ve noticed two or three distinct forest biomes, two distinct wetlands biomes (one of which might be more forest than wetlands?), and a few other things that don’t fit neatly in the biome boxes. (Like what I’ve called ‘rock rivers’, which I’m guessing are a kind of ‘rock outcropping.’)

Coal Country Biomes Research Montage!

So this morning, I hopped on google and did some searches on Appalachian biomes.

It was hard to find much info. Harder than it needed to be, because half the sources I found placed Pennsylvania in a ‘Southern Appalachian’ region and half in a ‘Northern Appalachian’ region.

Eventually, I hit jackpot. Well, half-jackpot. ‘Jackpot’ was a US-EPA PDF of ‘level III ecoregions of Southern Appalachia.’ Which did not include PA but did break down each ‘level III’ region into several ‘level IV’ regions. The PDF also included the types of biomes found within each level IV region.

With that starting point, I was able to track down an EPA ‘level 3 ecoregion map’ and this amazing EPA website.

It contains info the EPA has gathered on ‘ecoregions’ in continental North America. Sadly, Hawai’i is not included. (The EPA and the WWF and maybe a few other places have their own versions of ecoregions, which adds to confusion when researching. “Ecoregions denote areas of general similarity in ecosystems and in the type, quality, and quantity of environmental resources…”) Choosing Pennsylvania brought me to two maps that show the level III and IV ecoregions overlaid on county and state borders, making it easier to see what ecoregions are in my area.

Unsurprisingly (because mountains), my locale contains 3 level IV ecoregions. The page with the maps also links to a .doc file describing each of the ecoregions. The description includes lists of some of the region’s biomes. For instance, the local ecoregions include Appalachian Oak Forest, Northern Hardwoods, Oak-Hickory-Pine Forest, and Shale Barrens.

Info also on which ecoregions have been most disturbed, and by what, and which are undisturbed or recovering.

Living in the mountains means no broad, sweeping ‘mega biomes’ (to steal a Minecraft term) but lots of patchwork. Which is why I know that these lists are incomplete. But they give me a much better starting point.

And I’m willing to bet that if I looked around the EPA website a bit for their maps and research on watersheds and rivers I’ll find more info on aquatic and wetlands biomes.

Only the Beginning

Being mostly homebound, it made sense for me to start my research on the web. But I know of two local nature centers and a few universities that will have more info for me. Including ways I can get involved in protecting and repairing these local biomes.

(The Nature Centers have ‘popular’ info on their websites, like bird-watching guides and plant-identifying classes. But I know someone there is going to have more in-depth info. They couldn’t be repairing the kind of habitat destruction they do if they didn’t have that knowledge. Next time I go there, I’ll finally know what questions to ask.)

Starting the Work

I’ve always said that as an activist, I do best as an educator. I’ve struggled with how to apply this to (conservation, land repair, climate change, biodiversity, insert preferred term here) because I am still learning. For the most part I am better off sending folks to the resources I learned from.

But this is something I can do. As that initial post I linked to highlights, the web has very limited information on some of these ‘unknown’ biomes. And lack of information leads to a lack of knowledge and resources for restoration. As well as lack of interest, and public interest is critical to getting resources.

That’s a research and writing problem. I like to think I’m good at both.

I know folks on fedi are waiting for some essays I promised to write — KU stuff, and health stuff, and prepping stuff. Which I promise I’ll get to! But I’m doing this too.

For the next six months, and possibly longer, I will write at least one essay a month on these Coal Country biomes. I’ll combine as much personal observation as I can manage, with some research and whatever else fits. I’m not a member of a culture indigenous to the region with traditional knowledge (neither is anyone else here, sadly, the expulsion of Native American tribes from Pennsylvania was… thorough). Nor am I any kind of professional. All I can offer is to take what info I can find, pull it together into one spot, and make any academic jargon readable.

Still, it sounds like that is something we need on the web right now: Basic info on an important part of our natural world many people have never heard of.

I can do that. And I will.

*Accessibility issue: the county borders on the maps have poor contrast and are hard to see. The downloadable doc gives some text description of each region’s location but nothing detailed enough to rely on.

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