Note: This video was created a few years ago, before the CZO Program expanded from 6 to 9 observatories.
A 7.5 minute video overview for general audiences. It features interviews with researchers from the Jemez-Catalina CZO.
Producer: Shipherd Reed (Flandrau Science Center, University of Arizona)
Associate Producer: David Lubinski (Institute of Arctic & Alpine Research, University of Colorado at Boulder)
Cinematographer: Ruben Ruiz (University of Arizona)
Interested in learning more?
The planet Earth. It is the only planet in our Solar System - and the Universe so far as we know it - that supports life. We all live here. And we want to make sure we can all keep living here.
Thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation, a national scale research project called the Critical Zone Observatories, or CZO for short, has been expanding our understanding of how water, and rock, and plants, and sunlight interact in the complex dance that enables life on Earth.
There are six observatories in the national network:
The Boulder Creek CZO in Colorado.
The Christina River Basin CZo in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
The Jemez River Basin and Santa Catalina Mountains combined CZO in New Mexico and Arizona.
The Luquillo CZO in Puerto Rico.
The Southern Sierra CZO in California.
And the Susquehanna Shale Hills CZO in Pennsylvania.
Six CZOs in different regions. They all have different rocks, different soils, different plants, and different climates.
But they are all studying the same interactions so they can understand the patterns and processes that transcend these variables.
When you hear "Critical Zone Observatory", you're probably thinking: What _is_ the Critical Zone?
It is the zone on Earth's surface that makes life possible.
The critical zone extends from the tops of the trees down to the water that circulates deep underground. It is the zone where rock meets life. And it covers the entire surface of the planet.
In the Critical Zone, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and the energy cycle all interact. Each of these cycles has its own complexities and each one affects the others in ways we are only beginning to fully understand.
As we understand these interacting systems and cycles, we start to see how our world sustains life.
You've probably heard of the water cycle and the carbon cycle, for example. And you may know that science already has a solid understanding of the broad phases of these cycles.
But we _don't_ know - what projects like the CZO will enable us to understand -is how the different cycles feed back into each other and change our weather, our crops, our drinkable water, our air and soil; all of those systems that we take for granted.
Without those systems, without the Critical Zone, humans, and all the other plants and animals that we depend on, could not survive.
These are the same cycles that have shaped our landscapes over millions and billions of years.
The CZO will combine knowledge across multiple timescales - from deep geologic time to rapid molecular transitions - and give us an unprecedented perspective on the ways that land and life evolve over time.
To achieve breakthroughs in our knowledge of how Earth sustains life, the CZO brings together scientists from many different fields of expertise.. so that each researcher brings another piece of the puzzle, and, together, they map a much more comprehensive picture of our amazing natural world.
Peter Troch, Hydrologist
Co-PI JRB-SCM Critical Zone Observatory
University of Arizona
"The most exciting part is the collaboration with other scientists. I learn most when I can collaborate with other Earth scientists like pedologists, geomorphologists, geochemists. And so the CZO project brings all these people together"
By bringing together many scientific perspectives into an interdisciplinary team of researchers the CZO will fill gaps in our knowledge, delivering new knowledge that may well prove crucial as our global population soars above seven billion.
Jon Chorover, Biogeochemist
Co-PI JRB-SCM Critical Zone Observatory
University of Arizona
"We don't really know when rain falls on one of these catchments, or these small watersheds… what we don't know is what path that water takes from when it first hits the top of the canopy of the vegetation to when it ends up in the stream that we see rise as a result of a rainfall event. Or to where it ends up as groundwater in an aquifer that we use as our water source, for example, here in Tucson. Another example is we don't know the rate at which rock is transformed into soil that is what can actually sustain plant growth and support life. And not knowing that is a big problem because we do know that human endeavors have dramatically increased the rate at which topsoil is eroded to the oceans and rivers. So we're losing topsoil at a rate now that is unprecedented in Earth's history."
As climate changes and environments shift, the CZOs will train a new generation of scientists who understand they dynamic connections between natural systems.
Enriqueta C. Barrera, Ph.D
Program Director, Critical Zone Observatory Program
Division of Earth Sciences, National Science Foundation
Enriqueta Barrera, The CZO Program Director at the National Science Foundation, has championed this innovative, interdisciplinary approach to science.
"One important aspect is the training that is taking place. We have all of these students. They're enthusiastic. Now they're talking to one another. They're working in different environments but they're maybe looking at some of the same questions. They're beginning to explore and compare. And this is really the next generation that is going to be leading into a different type of science."
Using the knowledge gained by the CZO will enable us to meet the grand challenges that we will face in our future. Already CZO researchers are discovering new relationships in the cycles of our natural world, expanding our understanding, and our ability to sustain life on Earth.
Teofilio "Jun"Abrajano, Jr. Ph.D
Head, Surface Earth Processes Section
National Science Foundation
"Every time you hear a new presentation from a Critical Zone Observatory, it's almost inevitable that you will find something new. In the first instance, what that tells you is how great our scientists are… that are involved in this. They're really creative in asking the right questions. But the second thing that it tells you, in fact, is how little know about Critical Zone Observatory processes. In addition to that, because all these folks are working in this area they are discovering things that are not part of our overall agenda. These are the value-added that is happening here. So the mere existence of the CZOs are actually, I think, fueling a lot of innovative thoughts, a lot of experiments that otherwise wouldn't have happened without this platform already in existence."
Our world is changing fast. Our water and energy resources are being used up at an ever accelerating pace. The knowledge gained from the CZO will help us make vital, informed decisions so that life... and people will continue to survive and thrive on our big blue marble, planet Earth.