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Northern Research Station
One Gifford Pinchot Drive
Madison, WI 53726
(608) 231-9200
(608) 231-9544 TTY/TDD

Clean Air and Water


Research Issue

[image:] A meter-square bin that will be used to develop a mescosm.Belowground processes play a critical role in the global carbon cycle: much of plant production occurs belowground, litter is processed in the soil, and soils are the largest repository of terrestrial carbon. Therefore it is essential that we understand how these belowground systems will respond to climate change - will they continue to store more carbon, or will changing climate reduce the amount of carbon stored belowground?

Our Research

The Mesocosm will reproduce a natural system, but allow for replicated and controlled tests of the effects of climate change scenarios on ecosystem function. The Mesocosm consists of 24 1m3 stainless steel bins that will be filled with forest soils or peatlands. These bins are accessible both aboveground and through a belowground laboratory.  The first experiment was initiated in 2011. Known as the PEATcosm Experiment, its goal is to measure the effects of changing climate on carbon storage in peatland ecosystems of the Great Lakes region.  Peatland ecosystems store a large percentage of terrestrial  carbon in a small area because of thick accumulations of undecomposed organic matter. This carbon is believed to be vulnerable to decomposition under climate change. The experiment will provide information to managers and policymakers regarding the interaction of climate and carbon storage in peatland ecosystems.

Expected Outcomes

The Mesocosm will enable us to explore key questions in the role of belowground processes in responding to and regulating climate change, species invasion and other major perturbations.  The addition of the Mesocosm to our existing facilities, which include the Rhizotron, a graphitization lab, and a microbial lab, will create a world-class facility where Northern Research Station scientists and collaborators can investigate the role that belowground processes play in the major challenges facing our forests and our nation.

Research Results

Potvin, Lynette R. Kane, Evan S. Chimner, Rodney A. Kolka, Randall K. Lilleskov, Erik A. 2015. Effects of water table position and plant functional group on plant community, aboveground production, and peat properties in a peatland mesocosm experiment (PEATcosm). Plant and Soil. 387(1-2): 277-294.

Romanowicz, K. J.; Kane, E.S.; Daniels, A.L.; Potvin, L.R.; Kolka, R.K.; Lilleskov, E.A. 2015. Understanding drivers of peatland extracellular enzyme activity in the PEATcosm  experiment: mixed evidence for enzymic latch hypothesis. Plant and Soil 397: 371-386.

Meingast, Karl M. Falkowski, Michael J. Kane, Evan S. Potvin, Lynette R. Benscoter, Brian W. Smith, Alistair M.S. Bourgeau-Chavez, Laura L. Miller, Mary Ellen. 2014. Spectral detection of near surface moisture content and water table position in northern peatland ecosystems. Remote Sensing of Environment. 152: 536-546.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Erik Lilleskov, US Forest Service, Northern Research Station - Research Ecologist
  • Chris Swanston, US Forest Service, Northern Research Station - Research Ecologist
  • Evan Kane, US Forest Service, Northern Research Station - Research Scientist

Research Partners

  • Randy Kolka, US Forest Service, Northern Research Station Research Soil Scientist
  • Andy Burton, Michigan Technological University
  • Rod Chimner, Michigan Technological University
  • Tom Pypker, Michigan Technological University
  • Andrew Storer, Michigan Technological University

Last Modified: 03/11/2020

Related Research

Interior view of rhizotron in Houghton, MichiganThe Houghton Rhizotron is an underground facility with 24 windows looking out into northern forest soils.


[photo:] Surface view of the 24 1m3 mesocosm bins (intact peat) located at the US Forest Service Forestry Sciences Laboratory.In order to understand interactions between plant communities and climate change in nutrient poor peatlands we have initiated the PEATcosm Experiment. (pdf - you may download a free pdf reader from Adobe)