June 3, 2014

'Critical zone' study expands with $1.4M NSF award

The study of what earth scientists call the “critical zone” – the area where rock, water, soil, organisms and the atmosphere meet – is expanding with a $1.4 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to Cornell.

The NSF’s Critical Zone Observatory program, started in 2008 with three sites, supports a network of instrumentation and field-monitoring locations where scientists focus on unraveling the complexity of this Earth boundary layer. Recently expanded to 10 sites, the program has been upgraded with a national office to enable further coordination between the sites. Cornell’s Louis Derry, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, is lead scientist in the effort.

The critical zone is where the atmosphere, hydrosphere and geosphere interact – the place where almost everything on Earth lives, Derry said. Processes within this all-important Earth’s “skin” include water quality, the availability and fertility of soils, habitat for the vast majority of terrestrial organisms and the carbon cycle.

“The goal of this program is to focus on some of the fundamental science questions in linking hydrology, geology, soil forming processes and plant biology,” Derry said.

The newly expanded Critical Zone Observatory-National Office (CZO-NO) will develop scientific and educational linkages among the observatory science teams. Fundamental questions about controls on soil, water and landscape development will be explored as well as tested across the network in ways that couldn’t be addressed in any single location, according to Derry. It is meant to be a community resource that brings ideas together and to support research that couldn’t be done within a solitary program.

Cornell’s CZO-NO includes collaborators Rob Ross and Don Duggan-Haas of Ithaca’s Paleontological Research Institution/Museum of the Earth, who will lead K-12 outreach and education efforts, and Tim White of Penn State University, who will lead data acquisition and coordination efforts.