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Marcell Experimental Forest


Marcell Experimental Forest's new research headquarters completed in 2005.Streamflow, weather, and well data collection began on the Marcell Experimental Forest in 1960. This 1141-ha site has six calibrated watersheds, each consisting of a mineral soil upland and organic soil peatland; an intermittent or perennial stream drains each peatland and its larger watershed. Formally established in 1962, the Marcell contains two units on land owned by the Chippewa National Forest, State of Minnesota, Itasca County, and a private individual. Previous and ongoing research addresses the ecology and hydrology of peatland. Research concerns typical upland/wetland watersheds in the Lake States, atmospheric chemistry, nutrient cycling, soil quality, tree-stand dynamics, and a variety of watershed treatments applied to upland or bogs to investigate impacts on water yield, peak streamflow, water quality and nutrient processing.


The climate at the Marcell is strongly continental, with moist warm summers and relatively dry cold winters with abundant sunshine. Annual precipitation averages 780 mm, and annual temperature is 3.3 °C. About two-thirds of the precipitation occurs as rain, and one-third as snow. Mean monthly precipitation ranges from 25 mm in February to 110 mm in August. Total annual precipitation ranges from 510 to 9,540 mm. Monthly average temperatures in June, July, and August are between 16 and 19 °C, and between -11 and -15 °C in December, January, and February.


Ely greenstone and Canadian Shield granite and gneiss bedrock underlie glacial drift 45 to 55 m thick. An 8-mthick compact till of clay, sand, and gravel containing limestone fragments lies directly on bedrock. Sand drifts totaling 35 m in thickness overly the till. The upper member of these sand drifts is exposed at the surface on about one-third of the Marcell. Soils in this parent material are Menahga sands (mixed frigid Typic Udipsamment), Graycalm loamy sands (mixed frigid Alfic Udipsamment), Cutaway loamy sands (loamy mixed Arenic Eutroboralf ), and Sandwick loamy find sands (loamy mixed frigid Arenic Glossaqualf). On about two–thirds of the Marcell, the deep sand drifts are overridden by a clay loam till with rock that is slightly calcareous and has several cretaceous shale fragments. In places, a 10-cm-thick layer of loess lays on the surface. Soils in this parent material are Warba fine sandy loamclay loam at depth (fine-loamy mixed Glossic Eutroboralf), Nashwauk fine sandy loam (fine-loamy mixed Typic Glossoboralf ), and Keewatin fine sandy loam (fine-loamy mixed Glossic Eutroboralf).

Forested fen peatlands developed on the Mooselake peat (a Euic Typic Borohemist). They are typically hemic in decomposition, reddish, and full of wood fragments. The forested bog peatlands developed on Loxely peat (a Dysic Typic Borosaprist) with porous sphagnum and ericaceous moss at the surface grading to Hemic and Sapric horizons within a depth of 1m. The poor fen/sedge peatlands developed on Greenwood peat (a Dysic Typic Borohemist).


In the Marcell, sandy uplands support red and jack pine in fire-origin stands or in plantations, along with mixed stands of aspen, white birch, balsam fir, and white spruce. The sandy loam till soils support similar mixed stands. Forested bogs contain black spruce and tamarack. The peatland surface is dominated by sphagnum mosses and ericaceous shrubs. The forested fens contain similar species as the bogs but also northern white-cedar and black ash. Open, poor fens are dominated by depauperate sedges and a variety of mosses.

Research, Past and Present

At the Marcell, research on organic soils includes the relation between soil physical properties and water properties. Research on peatland hydrology and ecology has examined the relationship of peatland vegetation and chemical and physical aspects of water source; the albedo and evaporation characteristics of forested and harvested peatlands; the impact of wetlands on streamflow patterns and peak flows and hydrograph shape in relation to organic soil profiles; and the effect of harvesting or prescribed fire on water chemistry, soil temperature, and water table response.

Numerous nutrient cycling studies have been conducted for all major nutrients, and in acid bog peatlands for trace metals. Data have been obtained on the rate of evolution of methane and carbon dioxide from various bog and fen peatlands, and the rates of carbon accumulation in peatlands. Detailed studies of the fate of mercury (both total and methyl) and interactions with sulfur inputs are ongoing.

Watershed studies include the evaluation of various forest management options on water yield and chemistry. Treatments include upland clearcutting of aspen, peatland strip and clearcutting of black spruce, prescribed fire in a harvested fen peatland, upland nitrogen fertilization, conversion of upland aspen forest to conifer forests, and use of cattle grazing or herbicides to convert from aspen to conifers.

The Marcell is a Long-Term Soil Productivity site for evaluating the impact of soil compaction and removal of surface organic matter on aspen productivity. It is the longest running National Atmospheric Deposition Program (NADP) site in the Nation (since July 1978). The Marcell was one of three pilot sites for the measurement of total mercury and methyl mercury in precipitation (beginning in 1993) as part of the NADP Mercury Deposition network. It is proposed as a U.S. Climate Reference Network site.

Major Research Accomplishments and Effects on Management

Many of the current concepts of peatland hydrology and ecology were first observed and tested at the Marcell. Forest management options for watershed and watershed modeling of storm hydrographs yielded data on the relationships between open or young forest land and increases in bankfull streamflow rates. These data have been translated to harvest rate and open land guides for various forest plans at the national, state, and county levels, and are used by river basin planning groups in the Lake States.

The Marcell is the site of an extensive long-term evaluation of groundwater wells. These data are used in combination with paleo-botanical studies of peat profiles and soil hydraulic conductivity to illustrate the significance of deep seepage to water and nutrient budgets on experimental watersheds. Work at the forest on soil compaction on the forest was the first in the Lake States to reveal the serious and prolonged impact of compaction on future aspen productivity.


University of Minnesota (Departments of Soil, Water and Climate; Natural Resources, Ecology, Forest Resources, Environmental Engineering, Water Resources Research Center), Science Museum of Minnesota, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota 31 Division of Natural Resources, Chippewa National Forest, Superior National Forest, University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Michigan Technological University, Gustavos Adolphus College, University of Toronto-Mississauga, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Geological Survey, National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Research Opportunities

The depth, variety, and length of water, soil, atmosphere, and vegetation data bases at the Marcell afford graduate students and collaborative scientists a unique opportunity to study watershed and landscape aspects of upland and peatland systems in the northern Lake States. There also is a variety of demonstration plots and areas on the Marcell.


The Marcell has a field laboratory (constructed in 1964) with a bunkroom, office, bench laboratory, small kitchenette, and bathroom. This facility is being replaced with a larger field laboratory with four bedrooms, universal access toilets, laundry, kitchen, bench laboratory, and small conference area.

Lat. 47°32′ N, long. 93°28′ W

Contact Information

Marcell Experimental Forest
USDA Forest Service
Northern Research Station
1831 Hwy. 169 E
Grand Rapids, MN 55744

Tel: (218) 326-7115

Summary information presented here was originally published in:

Adams, Mary Beth; Loughry, Linda; Plaugher, Linda, comps. 2004. Experimental Forests and Ranges of the USDA Forest Service. Gen. Tech. Rep. NE-321. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station. 178 p.

Information may have been updated since original publication.

Last Modified: 12/12/2012