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Big Science with the Department of Energy

Global challenges such as a changing climate require landscape-scale answers.  Since 1997, the Forest Service has partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy and various universities to deploy large-scale field experiments that are answering the big questions posed by the effects of rising temperatures and a changing atmosphere on forested ecosystems.

SPRUCE Experiment

[photo:] SPRUCE site surrounded by boardwalk.The newest partnership is the Spruce and Peatland Response Under Climatic and Environmental Change (SPRUCE) Experiment. Started in 2009, it is designed to assess the response of northern peatland ecosystems to increases in temperature and exposures to elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The SPRUCE experiment is the primary experimental component of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Scientific Focus Area of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Climate Change Program, focused on terrestrial ecosystems and the mechanisms that underlie their responses to climatic change.

The experimental site, on the Marcell Experimental Forest near Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is located at the southern margin of the boreal peatland forest. It is an ecosystem considered especially vulnerable to climate change, and anticipated to be near its tipping point with respect to climate change. Responses to warming and interactions with elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration are anticipated to have important feedbacks on the atmosphere and climate, because of the high carbon stocks harbored by such ecosystems. The warming component of the SPRUCE Experiment was operational in 2015 while the elevated atmospheric CO2 component will be turned on in June of 2016. The experiment is expected to run until 2025.

Aspen FACE

photo:] FACE study siteFrom 1997 to 2009, the Northern Research Station hosted the Aspen Free Air Carbon dioxide Enrichment (FACE) Experiment, another collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy. Located at the U.S. Forest Service Harshaw Research Farm near Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Aspen FACE was conceptualized as an important step to understanding large scale tree response of three northern tree species to elevated carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas) and ozone (urban pollution) in anticipation of predicted climate change. Understanding the response of forest and woodland ecosystems to a changing climate is critical because they contain a major portion of the world’s biomass and are significant contributors to biosphere-atmosphere CO2 cycling and carbon storage.

Both experiments are designed to encourage broad scientific collaboration. Researchers from around the world are encouraged to propose and conduct their own studies using the data generated from this unique infrastructure.

Scope:  Partnerships between the U.S. Department of Energy and the Forest Service have leveraged scientific expertise and multi-million dollar investment to accomplish large-scale climate change science.



Aspen FACE


(as of April 2013)







Funding institutions



Research scientists participating



Forest Service researchers participating



Annual budget (approximate)

$1.1 million

$5 million


Results: The long-term nature of these experiments produces a continuing stream of data and science analysis. Data collection on the SPRUCE Experiment is just beginning. Over a 12-year span, Forest Service scientists and collaborators produced more than 130 peer-reviewed scientific publications based on Aspen FACE results.  They found that:

  • Moderate levels of ozone will offset elevated carbon dioxide response projected for the year 2100.
  • Carbon sequestration under elevated carbon dioxide is being overestimated by modelers who do not consider the effect of ozone in areas with periodic elevated ozone events.
  • Elevated CO2 delays normal autumn leaf senescence, predisposing some aspen genotypes to winter dieback.
  • Aspen and birch insects and diseases may increase under elevated carbon dioxide and ozone.

Impacts:  Aspen FACE research results have influenced the setting of ozone pollution standards by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Other major applications expected are in the setting of national climate change policy and forest management plans for important northern hardwood species.

The SPRUCE Experiment also promises to provide important data on ecosystem responses to climate and atmospheric change to help policy makers and the public plan for the future.

Lessons Learned:  Building world-class experiments attracts world-class researchers and delivers results that match. Partnerships of this magnitude take time to build and require continuing attention but the payoff is immense.  Large-scale manipulative experiments are the cornerstone of collaborations between the U.S. Department of Energy and the Forest Service.  These two collaborating agencies have the support, infrastructure, land opportunities and scientific capacity to conduct them. 

[photo:] Paul J. Hanson, Corporate Fellow, Oak Ridge National Laboratory


"Our partnership with the USDA Forest Service on the development and operation of the SPRUCE experiment at the Marcell Experimental Forest has allowed important research on an understudied and sensitive high-carbon ecosystem to take place." -- Paul J. Hanson, Corporate Fellow, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Partner Organizations

Aspen Free Air Carbon dioxide Enrichment (FACE) Experiment

Spruce and Peatland Response Under Climatic and Environmental Change (SPRUCE) Experiment

Last Modified: July 31, 2019