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Tech opens research facility

Mesocosm center to study belowground systems

August 29, 2012
By STACEY KUKKONEN - DMG writer ( , The Daily Mining Gazette

HOUGHTON - Because of its prime location to natural resources, Michigan Technological University is the site of a U.S. Forestry Service mesocosm facility for research, formally called the Houghton Mesocosm Facility.

And the site could have been placed anywhere, said Tom Schmidt, assistant director for research at the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station in Houghton.

"Of course we built this here," Schmidt said before a large crowd Tuesday at a dedication for the center. "Because of the relationship. This has always been a place where the forest service can come to and count on incredibly high-quality interaction. We could have done it in Wisconsin. (UW) Madison would have loved to have had this. But of course it went here."

Article Photos

Stacey Kukkonen/Daily Mining Gazette
Erik Lilleskov, research ecologist and director’s representative for the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station on Michigan Technological University's campus shows participants plants as part of the mesocosm facility project.

Erik Lilleskov, research ecologist and director's representative for the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station on Tech's campus, was first to speak before a large crowd Tuesday at a dedication for the laboratory.

Located at the USDA Forest Service's Forestry Sciences Laboratory on MacInnes Drive, the mesocosm center - or a center which brings a small part of the natural environment under controlled conditions - was born from a vision, Lilleskov said. That vision came from a series of university individuals in 2001, including now-university President Glenn Mroz. The idea was to create a belowground work unit.

"We're forever grateful to them for having that vision," Lilleskov said.

The Houghton Mesocosm Facility is being used for an ongoing PEATcosm experiment at the moment, in which scientists are studying the effect of climate change on carbon cycling in a peatland ecosystem, one of the most important ecosystem types in the region.

Schmidt said the Houghton Mesocosm Facility will be the site of "great research" and said the forest service feels valued in Houghton at Michigan Tech.

Belowground processes play a critical role in the global carbon cycle as much of plant production occurs belowground as roots. As part of the project, it's vital for Michigan Tech scientists, which includes students heavily, to understand how belowground systems will respond to major changes such as climate change and invasive species. At the facility, aboveground plots sit on the surface of the earth, all being continually tested and monitored.

The Houghton Mesocosm Facility consists of 24 stainless steel bins filled with forest soils or peatlands. Just a few feet away from the plots, a building leads below the earth's surface where the bins are accessible through a belowground laboratory, Lilleskov said.

The plan is to study belowground processes in responding to climate change and how carbon is lost from its solids and converted to carbon dioxide, which is one of the main greenhouse gasses warming the climate, making carbon an essential part of soils, enhancing quality and ecosystem productivity.

For the project at Tech, scientists are testing various vegetation mixes which could respond to climate and also influence the rate of carbon storage or loss, he said.

The new mesocosm joins existing facilities, including a graphitization lab and microbial lab.

Deb Dietzman, assistant director for communications with the U.S. Forest Service, said mesocosms are stationed at different areas and operate through universities. Various other universities will work with Michigan Tech.

"Michigan Tech partners because of its excellence in resources and the willing administration that works with us," she said. "It made it very easy to decide to locate this facility here. ... A lot of people you see here are students."



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