Email Print Share

News Release 07-178

NSF Awards Grants for Three Critical Zone Observatories

New "holistic" Earth surface observatories to focus on the science of watershed evolution

Illustration of a critical zone observatory.

NSF has awarded grants to critical zone observatories to study processes at Earth's surface.

November 26, 2007

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has selected sites for three critical zone observatories (CZO). The observatories are designed to provide scientists with an understanding of what has come to be called the critical zone--the region between the top of the forest canopy and the base of unweathered rock: our living environment--and its response to climate and land use changes. The CZOs represent the first set of systems-based observatories dedicated to Earth surface processes.

Scientists at each CZO will investigate the integration and coupling of Earth surface processes and how they are affected by the presence and flux of fresh water. The CZOs will use field and analytical research methods, space-based remote sensing and theoretical techniques.

The three CZOs are located in watersheds in the Sierra Nevada, the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, and the Appalachian Uplands. The respective awardees are the University of California at Merced, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Pennsylvania State University.

These projects add to the environmental sensor networks in place and planned by NSF, including EarthScope, the National Ecological Observatory Network, and the Ocean Observatories Network.

"Scientists have known for a long time that the critical zone is a complex system in which the different components interact at various space and time scales and in which the rates of processes depend on the nature of the interactions," said Art Goldstein, director of NSF's division of earth sciences, which funded the CZOs. "Until now, we have looked at these components individually, particularly in the field. The CZOs are a very exciting development that will allow for investigation of the critical zone as a holistic system, rather than as isolated parts of a system."

The water cycle, the break-down of rocks and formation of soil, the geochemical and physical erosion of that soil, evolution of rivers and valleys, patterns of vegetation, and the form and function of the Earth that we see are products of multiple, highly interactive processes in the critical zone.

"The water, vegetation and geochemistry are all interrelated, with feedbacks from each influencing the others," said scientist Roger Bales of UC Merced/the Sierra Nevada CZO.

Society has long recognized the importance of water, soil, land forms and rivers to human welfare, but has only recently begun to holistically probe the workings of these coupled systems, he and other researchers believe.

Suzanne Anderson of the Colorado CZO said that "the observatories will benefit our comprehension of the entire Earth surface by spurring more connection of individual research to larger questions. The CZOs mark a significant change in the way we study the surface of the Earth."

Chris Duffy of Pennsylvania State University-led Susquehanna/Shale Hills CZO said that the research "will lead to a predictive understanding of how changing climate and human activities impact the evolution and function of the critical zone, especially as it relates to sustainable water resources."

How hydrologic, physical, geochemical, and biological processes interact to break-down rocks, to form soil and to shape the landscape are significant questions in many earth science--and societal--problems, said Goldstein.

Scientists at NSF's new CZOs are working to find answers to these questions:

  • How do landscapes evolve over both human generational time scales and over multi-millennia, and how is this process affected by the presence and flow of water?

  • How do soil and weathered bedrock move down hillslopes, and how are they coupled to the evolution of the channel that usually surrounds the base of the hillslopes?

  • How do biological processes impact physical processes?

  • Are there signals in the landscape that can tell us about past climates, about how these landscapes have responded--and might in the future--to climate change?



Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

mail icon Get News Updates by Email 

Connect with us online
NSF website:
NSF News:
For News Media:
Awards database:

Follow us on social