National, Eel, Luquillo, Shale Hills, INVESTIGATOR, COLLABORATOR
The use of observatories to study the environment in the U.S.A. arguably began in 1910. Since then, many environmental observatories were set up to study impacts of land use change. At that time, observatories did not emphasize geological structure. Around 2004, scientists in the U.S.A. began to emphasize the need to study the Earth’s surface as one integrated system that includes the geological underpinnings. In 2007, the Geosciences Directorate within the U.S. National Science Foundation established the Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) program. Today the CZO network has grown to 9 observatories, and 45 countries now host such observatories. A CZO is an observatory that promotes the study of the entire layer of Earth’s surface from vegetation canopy to groundwater as one entity. The observatories are somewhat similar to other NSF-funded observatories such as Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites but they differ in that they emphasize the history of the landscape and how it mediates today’s fluxes. LTERs largely focus on ecological science.
The concepts of CZ science and CZOs -- developed by the Geosciences Directorate -- have been extraordinarily impactful: we now have deeper understanding of how surficial processes respond to tectonic, climatic, and anthropogenic drivers. One reason CZOs succeed is that they host scientists who make measurements in one place that cross timescales from that of the meteorologist to the geologist. The NSF Geosciences Directorate has thus promoted insights showing that many of the unexplained mysteries of “catchment science” or “ecosystem science” can be explained by the underlying geological story of a site.
The scientific challenges of this endeavor are dwarfed, however, by cultural challenges. Specifically, while both CZOs and observatories such as LTERs struggle to publish many types of data from different disciplines in a continually changing cyber-world, only CZO scientists find they must repeatedly explain why such observatories and data are even necessary. LTERs have enjoyed funding since the 1980s whereas continued funding for CZOs has always been under intense scrutiny. These misgivings must be articulated and solved so that humans can integrate disparate observations to learn to sustain their natural environment -- which is often defined by the geological substrate.
Brantley, S.L. (2017): Using the Critical Zone Observatory Network to Put Geology into Environmental Science (Invited). 2017 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, New Orleans, LA, 11-15 Dec .
This Paper/Book acknowledges NSF CZO grant support.