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Marcell Experimental Forest Peatlands

Marcell Experimental Forest Peatlands


North Central



  • Listed on more than one “valuable wetland” list by natural resource agencies or nongovernment organizations

The Marcell Experimental Forest (MEF) was established by the USDA Forest Service in 1960. As a result, the MEF is the longest running peatland experiment on the planet with nearly 65 years of streamflow, water table, soil water and many other long-term data sets. Although the research at the MEF has been fundamental in developing our knowledge on peatland ecohydrology and peatland biogeochemisty across a range of peatland conditions (bogs to fens), two peatlands deserve special mention. The Bog Lake peatland is one of the longest running peatland eddy covariance sites on the planet, and the location that first observed large methane fluxes from peatlands in the late 1980s. Second, our S1 bog is the location of the Spruce and Peatland Responses to Changing Environments (SPRUCE) experiment, the most extensive (by any metric) climate change experiment on the planet, not just in wetlands. SPRUCE is a whole ecosystem warming experiment (soil and atmosphere) that also includes elevated carbon dioxide treatments.

In this case, these peatlands are precious because of the long-term history of research and the impacts that research has had foundational decisions. Ranging from Clean Water and Clean Air Act discussions years ago, to contributing to a recent pause on mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area (BWCWA), as well as rules governing mercury pollution, our peatland research at Marcell has contributed to improved environmental conditions. Contributing to the Clean Air Act and Amendments were the result of the Marcell Experimental Forest being the first site in National Atmospheric Deposition Program. Our scientists helped develop that network in the mid 1970s and over 300 sites exist today. We were similarly first when NADP started a mercury deposition network in the early 1990s and has over 100 sites nationally. These are just some examples where the Marcell Experimental Forest was out front contributed to higher impact legislation, mainly as a result of our years of peatland research and awareness of impacts from atmospheric deposition.

Exemplary Ecosystem Services:
  • Carbon storage
  • Water quality improvement
  • Education

Peatlands store about 1/3 of the global terrestrial C, although they only occupy 3% of the planet making them an important driver of climate that is disproportional to their area. The MEF peatlands were among the first to really characterize and understand C cycling in peatlands, from the microbial to ecosystem level. 

Associated with carbon and sulfate is the transformation of mercury to the bioaccumulative form of mercury, methylmercury. Again, MEF was the first research to understand hydrologic fluxes of mercury back in the 1990s and that area of research now encompasses much additional research on microbial processes, gas fluxes and influences of landscape factors such as increasing sulfate deposition, as well as new research in the region that is influencing decisions on mining in northern Minnesota.

We don’t have a formal education plan but we give tours of Marcell for hardcore researchers,numerous public groups, and students, from college age to second graders, reaching somewhere on the order of 300 folks/year.


Conservation status: National Government Protection

Adjacent Land Use: Upland Forest/Woodland

Approximate natural buffer width: > 100 ft

Public Access: Yes, extremely accessible

Other information:

The major threat to peatlands at Marcell and globally is climate change, both in increases in temperature and changes to precipitation regimes. We are seeing peatland ecosystems flipping from being sinks for carbon that they have been for 11,000 years to being sources which will feedback to our climate forcing exacerbating climate change.   


Approximate size: 1200 ha
General wetland characterization: Inland Fresh Wooded Swamp, Inland Fresh Bog
Adjacent Water Bod(ies): 
  • Lake
  • Stream, 1st order
Name of body of water: These are small streams draining the peatlands with flows ultimately impacting the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, and the Red River that flows north into Canada.

Surficial Geology:

Ely greenstone and Canadian Shield granite and gneiss bedrock underlie glacial drift 45 to 55 m thick. An 8-mthick compact till of clay, sand, and gravel containing limestone fragments lies directly on bedrock.


Peatland soils are organic and range from Hemic to Sapric. Most common series is Greenwood.


the Marcell Experiment Forest Peatlands are near the boreal-temperate forest border where we have species from both biomes.

Dominant flora: Overstory: Black Spruce, Tamarack (eastern Larch), White Cedar Black Ash | Understory: Labrador Tea, Leatherleaf, Bog Rosemary, Bog Laurel, Creeping Snowberry, False Solomon Seal, Bog Birch, Speckled Alder, Marsh Marigold, Bog Cranberry, Blue-flag Iris

Unique flora: Round-leaved Sundew, Pitcher Plant, Pink Lady Slipper (MN state flower)

Dominant fauna: White-tailed deer, Moose, Black Bear, Grey Wolves, Red Fox, Grey Fox, Fisher Marten, Bobcat, Lynx, Snowshoe Hare, Cottontail Rabbit, Boreal Chickadee, Black Capped Chickadee

Rare fauna: 

Additional Info

Wetland location : 1831 Hwy. 169 E Grand Rapids, MN 55744

Name of Wetland : Marcell Experimental Forest


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