Penn State receives NSF Critical Zone Collaboration Grant

Lysimeter collection at Susquehanna-Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Understanding of the Critical Zone, which stretches from tree tops to the deepest fresh groundwater -- the place where rock, soil, water, air and living organisms interact and shape Earth's surface -- will get a needed boost funded by a $1.35 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Researchers at Penn State and nine other locations across the country who work at NSF funded Critical Zone Observatories could someday help scientists forecast how our planet will react to changing climate and land use. Penn State's CZO is Susquehanna-Shale Hills in the Stone Valley Recreational Area in Pennsylvania.

To answer those global questions, the observatories need to build a shared platform for broader research. That is the goal of the new Science Across Virtual Institutes, created with the support of the NSF grant that will be administered by Penn State. The project will help scientists establish common experiments and measurements that can be conducted at the nation's 10 CZO locations and their counterparts in Europe, China and Australia, and will provide training for a group of graduate students and post doctoral fellows to carry out and continue the work.

"We've got to build this thing into a network if we have any hope of answering the kind of scientific and socially relevant questions we want to answer," said Tim White, CZO national office coordinator and a senior research associate at Penn State's Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. "The simplest way of thinking about it is -- we need to be able to do science across the observatories."

CZO SAVI aims at boosting collaborations among the observatories and with the larger Earth surface science community. It seeks to establish a framework that will allow scientists across the country and world to address the future habitability of the Critical Zone and answer questions that could pose major challenges to humanity's future.

"The SAVI funds from NSF will promote conversations among scientists around the world who are trying to understand how the surface earth transforms over time," said Susan Brantley, Distinguished Professor of Geosciences at Penn State and director of EESI. "We are measuring the rates of change in water, solutes and soil in the past and relating those to rates today. It is not easy to model across time, but working together will allow our abilities to grow."

Brantley was a driving force behind the CZO program, which started in 2007 with three observatories -- Penn State's; the Southern Sierra Observatory, California; and the Boulder Creek Observatory, Colorado. The goal was to bring together scientists from a number of disciplines and encourage innovation in our understanding of the physical, biological and chemical processes occurring in the Critical Zone.

In 2009, three additional observatories were added to the program: Luquillo Mountains Observatory, Puerto Rico; Christina River Basin CZO, Delaware and Pennsylvania; and the Jemez River Basin/Santa Catalina Mountains CZO, Arizona and New Mexico, came onboard in 2009. Last year, four new observatories joined the group -- Eel River CZO, northern California; Reynolds Creek CZO, Idaho; the Intensively Managed Landscape CZO, llinois, Iowa and Minnesota; and the Calhoun Forest CZO, northern South Carolina.

The observatories are geographically diverse, with cross-disciplinary collaboration and experts working together from fields including hydrology, geochemistry, geomorphology, pedology, ecology and climatology. However, to answer global-scale questions, diverse researchers working on different science in different parts of the country must agree to common measurements, White said.

"This award will lead to the networking of environmental observations and research focused on the Earth's surface," said Henry Gholz, program director in NSF's Division of Environmental Biology, which co-funded the CZO SAVI with NSF's Division of Earth Sciences. "It's critical to measure and assess the effects of the rapid environmental changes that characterize the Anthropocene. Linking the U.S. CZO network with other environmental observatory networks, and with international counterparts, offers new opportunities to advance our understanding of ecosystems around the globe."

Last year, the CZO National Office was created to begin thinking about how to answer network-wide questions. White serves as coordinator, and Lou Derry, professor of Earth and atmospheric science, Cornell University, is director. SAVI will take collaboration a step further, providing funding to help researchers coordinate and conduct similar science experiments.

"The CZO SAVI will focus on building national and international partnerships with other environmental observatory programs, and developing common measurements to answer pressing scientific questions on regional and global scales while training the next generation in critical zone science," said Enriqueta Barrera, NSF CZO program director.

The focus, White said, is finding a way to get common measurements to answer cross-site questions. SAVI provides extra money for training and meetings to get everyone on the same page. Getting all parties to agree on and develop the needed science is expected to require several years of workshops and targeted research projects that demand common measurements.

The plan calls for a bottom-up approach of training a network of graduate students and post doctoral fellows to promote agreement on common measurements across the sites. It would mean establishing a new cadre of truly interdisciplinary and international scientists.

"Five years down the road, I would like to say we've gotten the observatories to make common measurements addressing some environmentally relevant societal issues, and have begun to move that information into the decision making and policy realm," White said. "When I look at this, I'm hopeful we can go a long way toward making this happen in five years."

Last Updated December 09, 2014