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Seeing Our Future More Clearly: How One Peatland Study is Changing How We Think About Carbon

Cover image for Research ReviewOn a 20-acre bog in the Marcell Experimental Forest in northern Minnesota, 10 open-topped chambers rise more than 23 feet out of the peatland, connected by walkways that seem to float over a layer of Sphagnum moss. "Some people have compared it to the science fiction scene of an alien landing spot on planet Earth," says Stephen Sebestyen, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service's Northern Research Station (NRS), and one of the scientists collaborating on this study. "In reality, what this turns out to be is, the world's largest climate change experiment."

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For more information contact

Andrea Brandon
Science Delivery Specialist
USDA Forest Service - Northern Research Station

Key Management Considerations

  • Peatlands make up 3 percent of the Earth's landmass yet store a third of global soil carbon because of the cool, wet, and acidic conditions.
  • Research from SPRUCE, the first experiment to use whole ecosystem manipulation to study the effects of climate change on peatlands, reveals that warmed bogs flip from carbon sinks to sources, releasing carbon at 5 to nearly 20 times the rate of historical accumulation.
  • The warmest bog plots experienced the greatest carbon losses, with peat elevation decreasing by as much as 3.9 inches.
  • Warming caused a dramatic shift in bog plant communities, with a near total loss of Sphagnum moss, a crucial keystone species for peatlands.
  • The results from SPRUCE are being integrated into Earth Systems Models to help scientists better assess future climate scenarios and mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Last modified: 8/23/2021