Climate, Through the Looking Glass

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

| July-August 2011

  • climate-through-the-looking-glass

    Image courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

  • climate-through-the-looking-glass

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 This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader

steve eatenson
8/5/2011 10:04:43 AM

Here in North Texas, this year, we've had about 30-consecutive days of temperatures ranging from 100 to 110 degrees. Todays prediction is 107. I've heard the argument that the earth always goes through normal cycles of heat increase and decline but right now, when I go out and get in my 120-130 degree car, I have to wonder if we haven't speeded things up. I hope the Republican, big business, big polluter advocates are right and this is just a fluke. Otherwise they are going to find themselves frying like bacon in a skillet right along with the rest of us.

Jeffery Biss
8/5/2011 9:55:17 AM

I bet that the low-information deniers will be able to find some irrelevant economic BS to claim that anthropogenic global warming is not happening, facts be damned.

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