WUN meeting at Penn State focuses on Critical Zone research

University Park, Pa. -- Developing a network of field sites around the globe to promote Critical Zone science is the focus of a two-day workshop held Wednesday and today at Penn State's University Park campus and sponsored by the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN).

"The Critical Zone Exploration Network Meeting" has drawn researchers from the U.S., U.K., Australia and China to promote concerted and interdisciplinary investigation of the Critical Zone, the part of the Earth where rock meets life. Human activities have changed and are changing this zone, which sustains life and extends from groundwater to the top of vegetation.

One aim of the workshop is to share ongoing research at the 20-acre Susquehanna Shale Hills Observatory as a model for other researchers and other research sites. The Shale Hills project, located near the University's Stone Valley Recreation Center, is part of the National Science Foundation-supported Critical Zone Observatory network.

An interdisciplinary team of Penn State researchers from the colleges of Engineering, Earth and Mineral Sciences and Agricultural Sciences is studying the hydrology, geology, soils and vegetation of that watershed to identify the key chemical, physical and biological processes affecting that particular Critical Zone.

The expectation is that by building a global network of field sites like Shale Hills, researchers can then develop models to predict the impacts of human activities on those processes and thereby determine how best to protect and sustain the Critical Zone.

The need for new policies to protect Europe's soil resources has been identified by the European Commission as essential to ensure environmental sustainability and economic stability, said Steve Banwart, University of Sheffield, a co-convener of the meeting. The EC has targeted desertification, loss of soil fertility and soil erosion as key elements of Critical Zone research.

Having a network of sites around the globe will enable researchers to compare data of similar measurements from multiple sites and thereby develop a better understanding of the Critical Zone, said Susan Brantley, director of the Penn State Earth and Environmental Systems Institute which hosted the meeting.

"We are encouraging researchers to share data across sites so that we can begin to quantitatively predict how the Critical Zone is responding to natural and human perturbation," said Tim White, senior research associate, who organized the meeting.

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Last Updated April 06, 2010