The place was surreal – right out of science fiction. I shared the feeling with Steve Spigarelli, Felicia and Bill Forder and my husband, David, that it seemed we were on an alien planet, not simply in a peat bog in northern Minnesota.
As a budding Minnesota Master Naturalist, I was intrigued by the article, “Seeing the Future,” from the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine’s January/February 2018 issue. The Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments, SPRUCE as it is known, is located in the Marcell Experimental Forest north of Grand Rapids, almost right in our own backyard. It’s a ground-breaking experimental center, the only one in the world located in a peatland bog.
I met John Latimer, our tour host at the project, when he was a presenter on the subjects of bogs at the Master Naturalist training held at Long Lake Conservation Center in January 2017. John, who regularly broadcasts phenology reports on KAXE at 7:20 a.m. every Tuesday, is one of a select group of people who is studying climate changes in this controlled setting. When I contacted him about touring the site, he was enthusiastic about our interest in seeing it.
When the department of energy began looking for sites for this project, they found an area of peatland on land owned by the federal government. It had a primitive beginning with wood boardwalks in the area, upgrading to metal walkways in 2013. In 2014/2015, ten metal pod-like chambers or greenhouses, slope-sided and open roofed, were enclosed with plexiglass.
By 2016, the chambers were heated electronically for below ground and propane for above ground at a range of different temperatures to determine how these peatlands reacted to warmer conditions. Two of the chambers have no added heat for comparison. Half of the chambers also have extra carbon dioxide pumped in through the air ducts to mimic potential continued increases in the greenhouse gas from human activities. There is a link between temperature rise and accelerated decomposition in the bog, which releases more CO2 and methane than at lower temperatures.
Self-taught in phenology, John is employed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to take thousands of pictures twice a week with an underground camera that takes 5-6 hours to complete. These are transmitted to the laboratory for documenting the growth of peatland plant roots and comparing the effects of climate change in the bog. Since 1964, the USDA Forest Service has compiled over 50 years of hydrological and meteorological experiments and measurements. One of the main purposes of this experiment is to discover what happens to the carbon in the bog. Three percent of the global landmass is bogs, but 30 percent of the stored soil carbon worldwide is stored in bogs.
Marcella Windmuller-Campione, assistant professor of silviculture at the University of Minnesota, said, “Peatlands are pretty rare on the landscape, and Minnesota is especially unique with three million acres of forest peatlands.” Shaped like a bowl with no water flow, bogs are mostly acidic. Many unique moss species and other rare plants are among those that thrive in this hidden gem environment.
Over 30 agencies are involved in the SPRUCE project and scientists from all over the world are involved in 30-40 ongoing experiments, a few of which involve mushrooms, lichen growth, resin samples, tree roots, genetics of the bacteria and chemistry of the peat.
With Minnesota’s spruce peatlands on the very southern border of their range, these peatlands are already living on the edge of tolerable conditions. As the climate changes, warmer temperatures may force the spruce and other cold-hardy species to shift north and be replaced by more southerly species.
The question from this volunteer is whether Minnesota will be the canary in the coal mine, alerting us to big changes coming for northern forest peatlands around the world? The SPRUCE experiment will bring us a step closer to informing our future generations about how climate is going to affect the planet.
I believe the five of us returned to Aitkin with the conviction that scientists around the world are firmly committed to the subject of global warming and its effects, not only here in Minnesota but worldwide. It was an eye-opening look into our future.