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Ground Broken for Underground Research Tunnel
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Email:Marcia Goodrich

June 15, 2005--Groundbreaking was held Tuesday, June 14, on a new facility that will allow researchers to study the dark and dirty world beneath our feet.

Officials ceremonially pushed shovels into the hillside behind the Houghton Forestry Sciences Laboratory to kick off construction of the new Houghton Forest Rhizotron. When it's completed, this 75-foot tunnel will give Michigan Tech and USDA Forest Service scientists a chance to study up close what's really going on in the underground realm of plants.

"This will be a rare opportunity to study tree roots," said Alex Friend, leader of the USDA Forest Service's lab in Houghton, who is spearheading the project.

The half-million-dollar concrete tunnel will be the size of a large hallway, with removable high-strength glass windows installed along its length. Scientists will be able to take out the windows to study the ecology of the complex systems surrounding tree roots.

In particular, Friend said, researchers plan to study carbon sequestration, the process by which plants "inhale" carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store carbon in the soil. Maximizing carbon sequestration could be a way to reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide and possibly mitigate global warming.

Research in the rhizotron could also help forest products companies better understand tree growth and apply that knowledge to grow more-productive and sustainable forests.

Professor Kurt Pregitzer (SFRES), whose work focuses on underground systems, is among the MTU researchers who will be using the rhizotron. "I think it's exciting," he said. "We've never been able to directly observe and sample in real time the biological phenomena that occur in the soil. It's really a diverse world. The food web there is poorly understood, but it sustains life on earth, including clean water and the health of forests.

"And some of these organisms are wild," he added. "Steven Spielberg should just hire an entomologist to pull them out and blow them up 100 times their actual size. They are so strange, and we know almost nothing about them."

"Plus, it really sets Michigan Tech apart to have this facility on campus," Pregitzer added.

Friend noted that the rhizotron is a result of a fruitful partnership between the USDA Forest Service and Michigan Tech. Pregitzer agreed: "It's been a great collaboration."

The facility is being built by Yalmer Mattila Contracting, in Houghton, and is expected to be finished in November. It is being funded by the USDA Forest Service North Central Research Station in St. Paul, Minn.

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