TUM - Critical Zone Observatory

Sustaining Earth's Critical Zone: Basic science and interdisciplinary solutions for global challenges


Earth’s Critical Zone (CZ), the thin outer veneer of our planet from the top of the tree canopy to the bottom of our drinking water aquifers that supports almost all human activity, is experiencing ever-increasing pressure from growth in human population and wealth. Within the next 4 decades, demand for food and fuel is expected to double along with a more than 50% increase in demand for clean water. Understanding, predicting and managing intensification of land use and associated economic services, while mitigating and adapting to rapid climate change and biodiversity decline, is now one of the most pressing societal challenges of the 21st century.

The international CZ science community addressed these challenges at an international workshop, convened November 9th-11th, 2011 at the University of Delaware, USA. Their report outlines specific CZ science advances that will be necessary, and documents the links between basic science advances in Earth surface processes and the global sustainability agenda. The overarching hypothesis is that accelerating changes in land use, atmospheric composition and climate are forcing rapid and profound changes in the continental surface that require an unprecedented intensity and scale of scientific observation and new knowledge to guide intervention.

Six priority science questions are identified briefly as follows and detailed in full on page 20 of this volume.

Long-Term Processes and Impacts

  1. How has geological evolution and paleobiology established CZ ecosystem functions?
  2. How do molecular-scale interactions between CZ processes influence the development of watersheds and aquifers as integrated ecological-geophysical units?
  3. How can theory and data be combined from molecular- to global- scales in order to interpret past transformations of Earth’s surface and forecast CZ evolution? Short-Term Processes and Impacts
  4. What controls the resilience, response and recovery of the CZ and its integrated geophysicalgeochemical- ecological functions to perturbations such as climate and land use changes?
  5. How can sensing technology, e-infrastructure and modelling be integrated for simulation and forecasting of essential terrestrial variables?
  6. How can theory, data and mathematical models from the natural- and social- sciences, engineering, and technology, be integrated to simulate, value, and manage Critical Zone goods and services?

Critical Zone Observatories (CZOs) are research field sites that provide a major international capability to advance the new knowledge that is required for sustainable management of the CZ. Some common features of current CZOs are a wide range of multidisciplinary expertise that is concentrated in order to deliver transformative science advances; a focus on process studies that are hypothesis driven; and a combination of empirical observation at multiple scales with mathematical modelling and simulation. The USA CZOs are developing advances in sensor technology and real-time data acquisition, integrated with data management, across a range of temporal scales. European CZOs are driving forward integration of science advances with social sciences and policy, and development of decision support tools for policy and management intervention.


File: Banwart et al., 2013: Sustaining Earth's Critical Zone: Basic science and interdisciplinary solutions for global challenges

Source: http://criticalzone.org/national/news/story/Sustaining-Earths-Critical-Zone-Report-from-2011-International-CZ-Meeting/


Definition of the Critical Zone


The Critical Zone (CZ) can be defined as the “heterogenous near surface environment in which complex interactions involving rock, soil, water, air and living organisms regulate the natural habitat and determine the availability of life sustaining resources” (NRC 2001).

In the past decade the CZ-concept has been applied across various disciplines such as geography, geology, pedology, biology, and hydrology to help provide better understanding of the CZ itself (Anderson et al. 2004, Wilding & Lin 2006, Brantley et al. 2007).

A cross-discipline approach is necessary to fully understand the “tremendous heterogeneity both vertically, manifested in distinguishable layers of weathered rock, regolith and soil, and laterally by the diversity of landscapes and the distribution of soils across them” of the CZ as described by Anderson et al. (2007). Most recently, Lin (2010a, b) summarized existing work and developed new concepts of cross-discipline interactions in CZ-studies.

Last but not least the efforts of recent years resulted in the establishment of various observatories throughout the world for inter- and cross-disciplinary studies of the development and the behavior of the CZ (Anderson et al. 2008).

60 to 70 years after Carl Troll (1939) and Josef Schmithüsen (1942) defined the concept of landscape ecological studies, the critical zone observatories (CZOs) are remarkably good examples for the successful implementation of this interdisciplinary concept into modern state of the art science.


Synopsis of Program (referring to criticalzone.org)


TUM-CZO will operate at the watershed scale (carbonatic Ammer Catchment, alpine Ammer Mts. and foreland; crystalline Otter Catchment, mid-mountainous Bavarian Forest) involving long term environmental research sites (Höglwald, Scheyern, etc.) processed by TUM-CZO people. Moreover TUM-CZO is in cooperation with TERENO PreAlpine.

TUM-CZO people are a diverse group of researchers and educators who study the physical, chemical and biological processes shaping and transforming Earth’s Critical Zone. This research spans a wide range of disciplines including geomorphology, [hydrology,] microbiology, ecology, soil science, [and engineering].

Within TUM-CZO. researchers can access and integrate data in a way that allows isolation of environmental variables and comparison of environmental effects across gradients of time, lithology, human disturbance, biological activity and topography.

TUM-CZO is a natural laboratory and one of those super-sites, where terrestrial processes and systems can be studied through detailed field observations and in situ measurements in specially designated areas.  This type of cooperative research is particularly suitable for studies of the CZ, in which techniques from several disciplines must be coordinated to collect data sets that are spatially dense and temporally extended. Above all, TUM-CZO allows to any alignment on tactical scientific activities.

In first approximation TUM-CZO will operate at the watershed scale and will investigate processes occurring in the Critical Zone in designated areas. Our work will be motivated by science, not simply by data gathering and characterization. Our purposes will be guided and implemented by both field and theoretical approaches, each providing the impetus for advances in the other. 

Projects will include an integration of efforts in several subfields addressing near surface processes. Potential subfields include (but are not limited to) biology, geomorphology, geochemistry, pedology, climatology and ecology. Connections to hydrology and remote sensing may be included but may not be the primary focus of TUM-CZO

Our aims are measuring fluxes in geo-, bio-, hydro- and atmosphere, to observing it over a longer period in order to isolate key forcing that influence the TUM-CZO sites. Contemporaneously, the influence of identified key forcing (e.g. extreme metereological phenomena in steep alpine areas) will be cross-checked in geoarchives in order to validate and adjust CZ-processes. This knowledge should help justifying and calibrating prognostic scenarios and models.