The critical zone: Studying where all of life happens

A segment of the Eel River as it flows through the Angelo Coast Range Reserve in northern California. (Photo by Christopher Woodcock)

18 Feb 2016
News Source: Berkeley Engineering

Science isn’t generally considered an extreme sport, but you wouldn’t know that by watching researchers in the Eel River Critical Zone Observatory.

Image: A segment of the Eel River as it flows through the Angelo Coast Range Reserve in northern California. (Photo by Christopher Woodcock) [Click image to enlarge]

An article by Jennifer Huber of Berkeley Engineering features the Eel River Critical Zone Observatory.

Science isn’t generally considered an extreme sport, but you wouldn’t know that by watching researchers in the Eel River Critical Zone Observatory scale hundred-foot-tall trees and wade through rushing rivers.

“The job description includes diving, swimming and snorkeling,” says hydrologist Sally Thompson, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, “along with hammering re-bar into a streambed and plenty of digging."

Thompson is the deputy director of the Eel River Critical Zone Observatory (CZO), one of ten National Science Foundation observatories that study the interconnected physical, chemical and biological processes of the “critical zone” — where rock, soil, water, air and living organisms interact and shape the Earth’s surface.

“We use the term ‘critical zone’ to describe the very thin slice around the Earth where all of life happens,” says Thompson, “which runs from the top of the tallest trees down to the bedrock where water can no longer flow.”

The critical zone provides us with clean water, food, nutrients, soil and carbon storage. CZO researchers are examining this zone to predict how the Earth’s surface will evolve with climate changes and future human activity. Their discoveries will help inform and guide decision-making on how to best mitigate and adapt to environmental changes.

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