Grand Rapids researchers use biodomes to study climate change impact

The SPRUCE experiment is located just north of Grand Rapids in the Marcell Research Forest.
Published: Jun. 2, 2023 at 1:54 PM CDT
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GRAND RAPIDS, MN. (Northern News Now) - The trees of northern Minnesota are sharing the forest with some towering structures.

The SPRUCE (Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments) experiment is located just north of Grand Rapids in the Marcell Research Forest.

The climate research facility uses biodomes to determine the impact climate change is having on peat bogs.

The project sits in a peatland bog, which is a remnant of an ancient lake left by the glaciers.

It’s one of the biggest studies of its kind, acting as a hypothetical forecast of what could happen as temperatures rise.

Researchers are focusing on these ecosystems because of the amount of carbon that is stored beneath them.

“These peatlands really store a lot of carbon,” explains Randy Kolka, Research Soil Scientist for USDA Forest Service. “Since the last glacial period about 10 or 11,000 years ago in this part of the world, they’ve accumulated up to 30 feet or more of carbon.”

Biodome enclosures within the SPRUCE experiment
Biodome enclosures within the SPRUCE experiment(Northern News Now)

There are numerous enclosures within the facility, each set to a temperature warmer than the ambient conditions.

This then mimics a warmer climate so scientists can study how the ecosystems react.

However, there is one plant researchers are most interested in: Sphagnum Moss.

“This is the plant that is the keystone species and is really the reason why we have tens of feet of carbon buildup,” Kolka said.

Over the last 10,000 years, Sphagnum Moss has continued to grow, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

Sphagnum Moss
Sphagnum Moss(Northern News Now)

“The carbon has been stored for eons obviously and if we start warming the climate, that carbon becomes available potentially for decomposition, basically rotting in place and sending that carbon dioxide and methane back into the atmosphere,” Kolka said.

In the peat bogs, the decomposition rate is much slower than in other environments.

While building the enclosures, researchers came across a log they had to remove and what looked to be a recently dead tree was actually much older.

“It was about five feet down so we could slip into our below-ground chamber and we carbon dated it and it was 4,500 years old,” Kolka said.

What researchers have found so far in the study is a lot less moss because it’s being shaded out by blueberries, which means less carbon is being stored in the bogs.

Researchers are also seeing a significant increase in carbon dioxide and methane being released from the warmer enclosures.

While the experiment is ongoing, researchers are surprised at the findings so far.

“We anticipated when we started the experiment that we would flip these ecosystems from carbon sinks to sources with warming,” Kolka said. “We didn’t know how much. We didn’t know at what temperature that would start to happen. Turns out it’s happening at a relatively low increase in temperature, something predicted by 2050.”

The SPRUCE experiment is scheduled to continue through the fall of 2025.

After it is completed, it will be decommissioned and disassembled.

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