State peat bogs to be climate study labs

They are a unique ecosystem for studying global warming dynamics.

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Open-topped micro-climate chambers, such as the one above at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, measure about 35 feet across and are large enough to hold 20 to 30 trees. The chambers will be used to study the effects of temperature changes on plant life.

Photo: , U.S. Forest Service

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A bog north of Grand Rapids will be home to a $30 million, 10-year federal research project to study the effects of climate change on peatlands and forest, an ecosystem dispersed around the top half of the globe that is expected to have a critical impact on the dynamics of global warming.

The project, announced Friday by federal scientists, will be the first of its kind. Researchers will artificially accelerate warming within experimental plots set up in the federal Marcell Experimental Forest in Itasca County. Using advanced technology, they will track the effects of temperature change all the way up the biological chain, from bacteria to giant spruce during the next decade.

"We are doing a whole ecosystem experiment," said Paul Hanson, a project leader with the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "We will be warming trees, shrubs and microbes down to a depth of two or three meters. That makes it unique."

Called SPRUCE, for Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Climatic and Environmental Change, the project is a partnership between the U. S. Forest Service and the Energy Department. Construction will cost about $10 million, and the operation of the facility will cost $1 million to $2 million per year. That will pay for basic offices and 12 to 14 open-topped micro-climate chambers of about 35 feet across, large enough to hold 20 or 30 trees.

The initial grants will be provided by the the Energy Department, but additional funding would come from scientists around the world who want to conduct research at the northern Minnesota site.

"It's the field of dreams approach," said Stephen Sebestyen, a watershed scientist at the Forest Service Northern Research Station in Grand Rapids. "If you build it, they will come. There is not another installation like it on the planet."

There have been similar projects to study global warming on other kinds of ecosystems, including grasslands in California and heathlands in Europe, said Yiqi Luo, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies the effects of climate change.

But the peat bogs, like those that are common in Minnesota's northern boreal forest, are considered especially vulnerable to climate change and could have an enormous influence on global warming.

Today, peatlands make up 3 percent of the world's land mass -- but hold 30 percent of its stored carbon, said Randy Kolka, an ecosystem scientist at the northern research station.

"That dwarfs the organic matter stored in tall grass prairie or tropical forests," he said.

Unique ecosystems

Rising temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns that accelerate or slow the release of that carbon into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases could influence the pace of climate change around the world, he said.

The bogs were created when chunks of ice fell off ancient glaciers, creating depressions that slowly filled with moss and water, creating ecosystems known for their unique plants. The peat bogs, sometimes dozens of feet deep, are now filled with thousands of years' worth of dead and very slowly decaying sphagnum moss -- the same kind sold at garden centers.

Unlike wetlands that have been mostly drained for agriculture, much of the world's bogs are still intact. Measured by volume, Minnesota's deep bogs hold about a fourth of the peat in the lower 48 states, said Lee Frelich, a forester at the University of Minnesota.

"We don't know much about the stability of these peatlands in a warming climate," he said.

The SPRUCE research scientists said that they plan to manipulate micro-climates within the research chambers in a way that mimics daily and seasonal temperature variations in the world outside. They will also add and subtract greenhouse gases to determine what impact they have on the living systems. More importantly, they can determine at what level and combinations the changes influence plant and animal life.

"We're trying to find what the balance is and what the tipping points are from microbial processes to large trees," said Sebestyen.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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