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March 21, 2016

Critical Zone Observatories help U.S. plan for the future


Scientists work with farmers to study land use impact, with eye on food and water security, environmental sustainability

From treetops to rivers to the bedrock below, there is constant activity going on in what we can think of as the "skin" of our planet. It's called the critical zone, the active layer of the Earth where life-forms, from microbes to humans, find habitat and use resources.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), civil and environmental engineer Praveen Kumar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Co-director Thanos Papanicolaou of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and an interdisciplinary team of researchers from nine universities run the Intensely Managed Landscapes Critical Zone Observatory (IML-CZO). The observatory focuses on areas in the upper Midwest where human activities have dramatically transformed the land over time.

"The Intensely Managed Landscapes CZO provides a unique opportunity among all the observatories for understanding how the Anthropocene, along with geological legacy, have impacted ecosystem properties in the Upper Mississippi River Basin," says Papanicolaou. "Our team at the University of Tennessee examines ways of storing carbon within the soil profile for improving soil quality and productivity. Also, we determine from which areas within the watershed most of the eroded soil originates using different tracers."

The three main study sites of the IML-CZO are the Upper Sangamon River Basin in Illinois, the Clear Creek Watershed in Iowa, and the Minnesota River Basin. The goal is to continue to get productivity from these landscapes, while reducing the impact of human activities and, in some cases, even enhancing the ecosystems.

The researchers share their findings with local farmers who make the studies possible by allowing towers, sensors, fiber optics and other equipment on their property. Each critical zone has a story to tell about how climate, water, vegetation and humans interact, and each story helps us to better understand and address issues of food and water security and environmental sustainability.

IML-CZO is a joint effort by a growing team of faculty and scientists from many institutions, including the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; University of Tennessee, Knoxville; University of Iowa, Iowa City; Northwestern University, Chicago; Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana; Indiana University, Bloomington; University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Penn State University, State College; Utah State University, Logan; the Illinois State Water Survey, the Illinois State Geological Survey, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The IML-CZO is one of nine NSF-funded critical zone observatories that span a range of climatic, ecologic, geologic and physiographic environments, from California to Puerto Rico.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1331906, IML-CZO.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton,, Science Nation Producer


Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.