New Report Says Human Tampering Threatens Planet's Life-Sustaining Surface

Aug 01, 2006
New Report Says Human Tampering Threatens Planet's Life-Sustaining Surface
Some areas of the Earth's critical zone include deep layers of soil that represent millions of years of erosion and new earth formation. Scientists say they need to better understand this and other processes to sustain food production. Credit: Bill Deitrich, University of California-Berkeley

In a report released today, scientists call for a new systematic study of the Earth's "critical zone"--the life-sustaining outermost surface of the planet, from the vegetation canopy to groundwater and everything in between.Understanding and predicting responses to global and regional change is necessary, they say, to mitigate the impacts of humans on complex ecosystems and ultimately sustain food production.

"Development is having a great effect on the critical zone," said soil scientist Donald Sparks of the University of Delaware and co-chair of the NSF workshop that led to the report, entitled Frontiers in Exploration of the Critical Zone. "Converting some of the best land around the world into buildings, roads and concrete has implications for air and water quality and biodiversity, and over time could put pressure on our ability to produce food.

Critical zone sites include an extraordinary diversity of soils and ecosystems ranging from the tropics to the poles, from deserts to wetlands, and from rock-bound uplands to delta sediments.

"Because the critical zone includes air, water and soil and is the focal point of food production, it has a major effect on human life," Sparks said. "It is imperative that we better understand the interactions that occur there."

The report calls for an international Critical Zone Exploration Network, as well as a systematic approach across a broad array of sciences--including geology, soil science, biology, ecology, chemistry, geochemistry, geomorphology and hydrology--to study critical-zone processes.

"We need to understand how living organisms interact with the solid earth at the scale of a billionth-of-a-meter as well as the scale of landscapes, how these effects have changed over geologic time, and how they will change into the future as humans continue to drastically alter the earth's surface," said Sue Brantley, a Penn State University geoscientist who co-chaired the workshop.

Scientists need to determine "how the physical, chemical and biological components of Earth's weathering transforms mineral and organic matter, sculpts terrestrial landscapes, and controls the exchange of greenhouse gases and dust with the global atmosphere," said Enriqueta Barrera, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the workshop that led to the report.

Scientists believe four key questions surround activity of the atmosphere, landforms, ecosystems and water.

• What processes control fluxes of carbon, particulate and reactive gases in the atmosphere?

• How do variations in, and changes to, chemical and physical weathering processes impact the critical zone?

• How do weathering processes nourish ecosystems?

• How do biogeochemical processes govern long-term sustainability of water and soil resources?

Funding for the critical zone workshop and associated activities was provided by grants from NSF's Division of Earth Sciences to the University of Delaware and Penn State, and by the NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program in Delaware.

Source: NSF

Explore further: Changes in forest structure affect bees and other pollinators

Related Stories

Assuring solar modules will last for decades

Apr 14, 2015

The Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is co-leading an international push to assure the reliability of solar panels—an assurance demanded by customers, manufacturers, lenders, ...

Ocean 'dead zones' a growing disaster for fish

Apr 09, 2015

Falling ocean oxygen levels due to rising temperatures and influence from human activities such as agrochemical use is an increasingly widespread problem. Considering that the sea floors have taken more than 1,000 years to recover from past eras of low ox ...

Hormones that guide root growth rates revealed

Apr 09, 2015

A plant's roots grow and spread into the soil, taking up necessary water and minerals. The tip of a plant's root is a place of active cell division followed by cell elongation, with different zones dedicated ...

The solar system and beyond is awash in water

Apr 08, 2015

As NASA missions explore our solar system and search for new worlds, they are finding water in surprising places. Water is but one piece of our search for habitable planets and life beyond Earth, yet it links ...

Recommended for you

Protecting food, energy and livelihoods in Punjab

2 hours ago

The state of Punjab spearheaded the Green Revolution that has transformed Indian agriculture. Encouraged by price guarantees, expanded irrigation and the introduction of high-yielding crop varieties, Punjabi ...

Seoul elevates gardening to high art

6 hours ago

From stylish, manicured creations to small vegetable plots, gardens are taking to the rooftops of the South Korean capital Seoul—bringing dashes of spontaneity and colour to the skyline of one of the world's ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.