It was a cold, drizzly day — feeling more like October than August — as Morgan and I bounced down a rough dirt road for about 10 miles before pulling up at a set of glass-and-aluminum structures that look right off the set of a science fiction movie.
We were spending the last week of August working at a large — and very expensive — science experiment in northern Minnesota that is trying to answer this question.
The experiment is called SPRUCE, which stands for Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Climatic and Environmental Change. SPRUCE is a multi-year cooperative project organized by scientists of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the U.S. Forest Service. It is trying to answer the question, ‘what effects will warmer temperatures and rising atmospheric carbon dioxide have on boreal forests?’
The SPRUCE experiment uses large chambers, about 30 feet wide and 25 feet high, to expose intact patches of boreal forest to environmental conditions that might exist in about 50 years. The forest itself is a mix of black spruce and larch trees, as well as shrubs like Labdrador tea and leatherleaf, and sphagnum moss.
The chambers are being subjected to a range of warming levels, with the air temperature inside some chambers raised to as much as 9°C (about 16°F) above outside conditions. And, in half the chambers, the level of carbon dioxide is being raised to more than double the current level that is in the atmosphere.
Ph.D. student Morgan Furze is conducting research at SPRUCE to see how these conditions –- elevated carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures –- will affect plant phenology. (Our research at SPRUCE is sponsored by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.)
We were at the site to install PhenoCams in each of the 10 experimental chambers. The cameras will stream images back to the PhenoCam database, and over the 10-year duration of the project, we will collect about a million photographs!
On the cool days when we were working at the site, the warmer temperatures were a plus. But, imagine what it will be like on a hot summer day, when the temperature outside is over 90°F, and inside some of the chambers it is approaching 110°F! It’s not hard to believe that this will have profound effects on the health and productivity of the plants, perhaps even causing shifts in the composition of the plant community. Our cameras will be watching as these shifts take place.