Climate, Through the Looking Glass

A forward-thinking experiment finds cause for concern in an artificial future

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Image courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which once housed the Manhattan Project, is now a climate-change time machine, where researchers are able to simulate the effects of global warming 100 years into the future.

The new project, Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Climatic and Environmental Change (SPRUCE), is much more complex than typical environmental experiments that involve “pumping carbon dioxide into a bell jar or wrapping potted plants in plastic and turning up the thermostat,” writes Stephen Ornes in OnEarth (Spring 2011). To create their futuristic scenarios, the scientists at SPRUCE created a 40-foot octagonal laboratory, with 26-foot-high walls and no roof, surrounding a plot of grass with heating pipes buried beneath—all hooked up to wires and gadgets to gauge the artificial ecosystem’s response to temperature fluctuations. The current chamber, located in eastern Tennessee, is a test model; in 2013 the project will move and expand to 24 identical chambers in northern Minnesota.

“Even though SPRUCE is still in a test phase, it has already begun to reveal new information,” writes Ornes. “As the soil warms, subterranean roots, fungi, and bacteria become more active, their respiration rates increase, and carbon dioxide emissions rise.” What that means, according to Paul Hanson, the project’s principal investigator, is “the reality is that in the future the deep soils will warm too,” and within that soil there are sources of carbon emissions that have previously gone undetected and unstudied. And ultimately, identifying what previous models and studies have missed is exactly what SPRUCE is set up to unearth.

cover-166-thumbnailHave something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader