NSF News

Understanding Earth's surface from tree canopy to bedrock: NSF announces awards for network of 'critical zone' research projects

Land-use change. Environmental change. Extreme natural events such as hurricanes and wildfires. All are placing increasing pressure on the planet and its natural resources. In the critical zone, the layer from the top of the forest canopy to the base of weathered bedrock, where freshwater flows and soil forms from the breakdown of rocks, life flourishes.

To better understand Earth's critical zone — the realm where water, air, soil, rock and life interact — the U.S. National Science Foundation has funded 10 new Critical Zone Collaborative Network awards at $10.5 million per year total, for five years.

The water cycle; the breakdown of rocks and formation of soil; the geochemical and physical erosion of that soil; the evolution of rivers and valleys; patterns of vegetation; and the form and function of the Earth are all products of interactive processes in the critical zone.

Critical Zone Collaborative Network grantees will work to answer scientific questions such as the effects of urbanization on critical zone processes; critical zone function in semi-arid landscapes and the role of dust in sustaining these ecosystems; processes in deep bedrock and their relationship to critical zone evolution; the recovery of the critical zone from disturbances such as fire and flooding; and changes in the coastal critical zone related to rising sea level, among others.

"There's so much still to be learned about the planet we call home," says Richard Yuretich, NSF program director for the CZCN. "These new awards will allow scientists to develop systems-level models to predict how the critical zone is responding to natural and human-altered processes. The research, analysis and outreach activities supported by these grants are crucial for informing future decisions about how humans and the environment should interact."

Nine of the awards are for thematic clusters focused on science topics and one is for a network coordinating hub. The coordinating hub will manage data across projects, plan for future facility and equipment needs, and support outreach and education activities. This approach will lead to increased exchanges of data, information and learning opportunities for researchers and students at all levels.

More information about the CZCN is available on NSF's Critical Zone Collaborative Network website and in this list of awards.