Designing a network of critical zone observatories to explore the living skin of the terrestrial Earth Journal Article uri icon



  • Abstract. The critical zone (CZ), the dynamic living skin of the Earth, extends from the top of the vegetation canopy through the soil and down to fresh bedrock and the bottom of groundwater. All humans live in and depend on the critical zone. This zone has three co-evolving surfaces: the top of the vegetation canopy, the ground surface, and a deep subsurface below which Earth’s materials are unweathered. The US National Science Foundation supported network of nine critical zone observatories has made advances in three broad critical zone research areas. First, monitoring has revealed how natural and anthropogenic inputs at the vegetation canopy and ground surface cause subsurface responses in water, regolith structure, minerals, and biotic activity to considerable depths. This response in turn impacts above-ground biota and climate. Second, drilling and geophysical imaging now reveal how the deep subsurface of the CZ varies across landscapes, which in turn influences above-ground ecosystems. Third, several mechanistic models providing quantitative predictions of the spatial structure of the subsurface of the CZ have been proposed. Many countries now fund networks of critical zone observatories (CZOs) to measure the fluxes of solutes, water, energy, gas, and sediments in the CZ and some relate these observations to the histories of those fluxes recorded in landforms, biota, soils, sediments, and rocks. Each U.S. observatory has succeeded in synthesizing observations across disciplines; providing long-term measurements to compare across sites; testing and developing models; collecting and measuring baseline data for comparison to catastrophic events; stimulating new process-based hypotheses; catalyzing development of new techniques and instrumentation; informing the public about the CZ; mentoring students and teaching about emerging multi-disciplinary CZ science; and discovering new insights about the CZ. Many of these activities can only be accomplished with observatories. Here we review the CZO experiment in the US and identify how such a network could evolve in the future. Specifically, we recognize the need for the network to study network-level questions, expand the environments under investigation, accommodate both hypothesis testing and monitoring, and involve more stakeholders. We propose a hubs-and-campaigns model that promotes study of the CZ as one unit. Only with such integrative efforts will we learn to steward the life-sustaining critical zone now and into the future.;

publication date

  • June 19, 2017

has restriction

  • green

Date in CU Experts

  • January 3, 2018 10:13 AM

Full Author List

  • Brantley SL; McDowell WH; Dietrich WE; White TS; Kumar P; Anderson S; Chorover J; Lohse KA; Bales RC; Richter D

author count

  • 12

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