Newswise — Scientists agree: A healthy planet requires a delicate balance of essential elements, including rain, plant life and temperature. Too much of one and not enough of another can trigger or magnify the effects of potentially critical global climate changes.

To help scientists better understand the Earth’s Critical Zone — the thin layer of life extending from the top of the trees to the bedrock — the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded creation of four new Critical Zone Observatories (CZOs) across the country that will complement five existing CZOs. One of the four new CZOs will be located in Reynolds Creek Watershed in Idaho’s Owyhee Mountains and is led by an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Idaho State University, Boise State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS).

This network of sites is charged by NSF to be collaborative natural laboratories. Scientists will study critical zone processes and collect data to advance predictive understanding of how the “Earth’s skin” functions and how it responds to disturbances like climate change and land management. The CZO network links scientists from a spectrum of backgrounds in the biological, ecological and geosciences from universities including University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Arizona, University of California-Berkeley, Duke University and Georgia Tech.

Boise State geosciences professors Alejandro (Lejo) Flores, Shawn Benner, Nancy Glenn and Jen Pierce, along with biology faculty Kevin Feris and Marie-Anne de Graaff, are working with colleagues from Idaho State and the USDA-ARS on the $2.5 million, five-year cooperative agreement.

The focus of the Reynolds Creek CZO will be to understand how climate, vegetation, soil microbiology and geology control how carbon is distributed within the landscape.

“One of the large uncertainties in global climate models is how the large store of carbon in the soil may influence the atmosphere and associated climate,” said Idaho State University Professor Kathleen Lohse, principal investigator of the Reynolds Creek CZO. “A small change in that large pool of carbon could have large effects on atmospheric concentrations.”

“This CZO is a tremendous opportunity for faculty and students at Boise State and partner institutions to contribute in a significant way to understanding of the critical zone and, in particular, how soils act to control the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and land,” said Flores, Boise State’s CZO lead investigator. “We aim to answer important questions like ‘how will soils control climate over the next 100 years?

“This opportunity comes precisely as the university is developing graduate programs to train the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists to address these challenging ecological questions. It is also another indicator of our maturation as a research university — the CZO competition is incredibly selective and every CZO is led by scientists from the best universities in the country. This CZO will lead to new collaborations, further strengthening research at Boise State.”

The Reynolds Creek CZO builds on a legacy of data collection by the USDA-ARS. “Unlike some of the CZO sites, which started from scratch or with little infrastructure, Reynolds Creek already has a lot of the required infrastructure in place,” said Lohse.

The CZO will act like a research center, conducting research activities, interacting with scientists from other CZOs, responding to the needs of stakeholders and performing outreach and engagement.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. EAR-1331872. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.