Experimental Minnesota forest helps predict climate change scenarios
In Northern Minnesota, scientists work at the Marcell Experimental Forest. David Weston, a senior scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, along with more than 100 other researchers, comes to the forest to study how different degrees of global warming might impact the world's northern forests.
"It's giving us some idea of how far we can push the system and how resilient the system might be. It's absolutely amazing to have a future scenario that you can measure right now today," Weston told CBS News' senior national and environmental correspondent Ben Tracy.
The group pumps heat and carbon dioxide into chambers with the temperature simulations ranging from no warming all the way up to 9 degrees Celsius – or about 48 degrees Fahrenheit.
The hexagon-shaped chambers in the experimental forest are open to the sky. Each one is more than 30 feet tall, 40 feet wide, and there are 10 on the seven-acre site — each providing a different glimpse into the future.
Scientists are studying what is known as the boreal forest — the world's largest forest system. It wraps around the upper third of the earth from North America through Scandinavia and much of Russia.
The boreal forest includes several species of trees and crucial mossy peatlands that play an outsized role in regulating the earth's temperature by sequestering planet-warming carbon dioxide.
"The peatlands are only 3% of the land surface area of the planet, but they hold up to a third to a half of the global soil carbon pool," Stephen Sebestyen, a researcher with the National Forest Service, said.
What the scientists are discovering through their studies of the chambers is that the hotter the planet gets the boreal forest ecosystem dries out. The critical peat moss is eaten up by bacteria and replaced by shrubs. That carbon once captured in the ground is released into the atmosphere accelerating the devastating impacts of climate change.
"Every single year has led to loss of carbon from these ecosystems. That's the crisis that we face. It's taking carbon from a solid form and a stable form in these peatlands to being a gas in the atmosphere that's a greenhouse gas," Sebestyen said.
As the northern forest gets drier, they are more prone to wildfires. Record-breaking blazes tore through the boreal forests of Siberia in the past two years charring millions of acres and spewing record amounts of carbon dioxide into the sky.
Scientists believe the planet's warming emissions need to be greatly reduced before the forest systems reach a tipping point.
"I'm a bit of an optimist but why roll the dice? Let's solve the problem now," Weston said.