Smile for the minirhizotron!

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Nine panels of slightly changing underground root growth and plant matter in orange hue

Minirhizotrons took these photos depicting root growth over a three-week period in the summer of 2011. Image courtesy of ORNL. Source: Method of studying roots rarely used in wetlands improves ecosystem research

Teeny little video cameras called minirhizotrons snapped these photos of wetland plant roots. The cameras will help scientists anticipate how the plants might respond to climate change.

Minirhizotrons give scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory a technological boost by allowing them to study living roots, especially the really small ones, without harming the plants. By tracking the life and death of roots in their real-life soil environments, with a few manipulations here and there, scientists can better understand what effects increasing temperatures and carbon dioxide levels will have on wetland ecosystems.

The specific wetlands in question are bogs, which are carbon-rich, but nutrient-poor environments. In other words, bogs collect a lot of carbon deep in their soil due to large buildups of dead plant matter. However, their soils don’t have a lot of nutrients to give back to living plants, making them tricky places for plants to grow.

Roots are responsible for transporting water and nutrients to the rest of the plant. So, in bogs, they have to work extra hard to keep plants alive.

Scientists will use the minirhizotrons in one of Minnesota’s black spruce bogs to track how roots react to their climate-change-mimicking manipulations.

Bogs cover only 3 percent of the Earth’s surface. So, why should we care what happens to them?

Because they store nearly one-third of our terrestrial carbon. Thus, if the planet continues to warm, scientists predict these bogs will dry out and release tons of carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating warming.