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First-of-a-Kind Research in Minnesota Explores Peatland, Carbon Connection

Ten open-topped enclosures built over about 7 acres of bog on the Marcell Experimental Forest will allow scientists to manipulate conditions to simulate a variety of hypothetical climate change scenarios and record a range of effects. Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory Grand Rapids, MN, August 26, 2015 - From the top of trees to the microbial communities deep within the peat soil, an unprecedented whole-ecosystem manipulation at the Marcell Experimental Forest will measure how peatlands respond to increased temperature and elevated carbon dioxide. “Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Climatic and Environmental Change (SPRUCE),” a Department of Energy (DOE) research initiative in which the USDA Forest Service and Oak Ridge National Laboratory(ORNL) are collaborating, was formally launched today near Grand Rapids, Minn.

Peatlands occupy only 3 percent of the planet, yet they store as much as 30 percent of the carbon stored in terrestrial landscapes. The majority of the peat has been stored in cold, wet conditions for thousands of years; SPRUCE research will explore how peatland and the organisms that live in peatland react to a wide range of warming conditions and elevated carbon dioxide concentrations.

“As research develops, SPRUCE will give America a unique perspective on climate change,” said Thomas L. Schmidt, assistant director for research at the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in St. Paul, Minn. “The knowledge we gain from SPRUCE will have global implications and utility as we strive to improve people’s lives by more effectively linking environmental health with community stability.”

At the Northern Research Station’s Headquarters in Newtown Square, Penn., Michael T. Rains, Director of the Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory, echoed those comments. “With this grand experiment, our primary goal is to ensure our global forests are healthy, sustainable and more resilient to disturbances along the complex rural to urban land gradient,” Rains said. “Science-based information and new, innovative technology is the elixir to this success.”

Ten open-topped enclosures measuring 40-feet wide and 32-feet tall built over about 7 acres of bog on the Marcell Experimental Forest will allow scientists to manipulate conditions to simulate a variety of hypothetical climate change scenarios and record a range of effects. Climatic and hydrologic data have been collected at monitoring stations on the Marcell Experimental Forest continuously since 1960.

“The Marcell Experimental Forest’s extensive long-term database concerning soils, hydrology, and chemical cycling and transport is a tremendous asset to SPRUCE and all of the science taking place on the forest,” said Randy Kolka, a co-lead for SPRUCE and a team leader for the Northern Research Station’s Center for Research on Ecosystem Change in Grand Rapids. “Our 50-year history of important research on peatlands and carbon led to where SPRUCE is today.”

Nearly 100 scientists and students from more than 27 research institutions throughout the world will be conducting research at the SPRUCE site to answer questions such as: how vulnerable are terrestrial ecosystems to atmospheric and climatic change, will warming peatland result in the release of unexpected amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, and how might hydrology be compromised or enhanced by atmospheric and climatic change?   

SPRUCE is funded by the DOE and further supported through the participation of ORNL’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Science and Climate Changesearchers and engineers at ORNL conceived the SPRUCE concept and design and developed the technology to produce large-scale whole-ecosystem warming conditions for the target black spruce peatland ecosystem.

“SPRUCE represents a significant DOE investment as well as a commitment by Oak Ridge National Lab to expanding our expertise in large-scale manipulations onto a new ecosystem that is important to the global carbon cycle,” said Paul Hanson, the SPRUCE project leader and a member of ORNL’s Environmental Sciences Division and Climate Change Science Institute.

Peatlands are found from the tropics to the arctic. In the continental United States, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan contain the majority of the nation’s peatlands within the Lower 48 States.

Formally established in 1962, the 2,800-acre Experimental Forest has been reserved for long-term research with the cooperation of the USDA Forest Service’s Chippewa National Forest, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Itasca County, and a private landowner.

The U.S. Forest Service is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a mission of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The mission of the Forest Service's Northern Research Station is to improve people’s lives and help sustain the natural resources in the Northeast and Midwest through leading-edge science and effective information delivery.

The U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live. For more information, visit


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Last modified: August 26, 2015