ARCHIVED CONTENT: In December 2020, the CZO program was succeeded by the Critical Zone Collaborative Network (CZ Net) ×

Educational Resources

CZ Science 1. Critical Zone background

A Pennsylvania cliff, illustrating a cross section of the Critical Zone with trees, soil, and bedrock.
A Pennsylvania cliff, illustrating a cross section of the Critical Zone with trees, soil, and bedrock.
The primary goal of this module is to recall, infer, and interpret a wide variety of scientific principles that analyze the Critical Zone as a complex system of interacting regolith, water, air, energy and life. This module is part of a undergraduate course on CZ Science hosted by InTeGrate SERC.

Grades 15 - 16
All Disciplines

Educational Objectives

By the end of this module students will be able to:

  • Accurately define the Critical Zone and the relationship to the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and soil.
  • Effectively summarize: 1) the transdisciplinary nature of CZ science and the relationship to system science; 2) the importance (and degraded state) of the CZ to supporting most terrestrial life including humanity; and 3) the importance of long-term observatories to understanding and integrating knowledge of Earth surface processes.

More on this module's objectives can be found here

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Higher Education

Observatory: National CZO

Author(s): Timothy White (Pennsylvania State University)


Funding: National Science Foundation–funded SERC InTeGrate project

Related Resource(s):

Details for this Resource

In this module, students are introduced to the Critical Zone as a complex system that requires directed transdisciplinary study to understand: as of April 2017, Critical Zone science is just one decade old and is evolving as this course develops. Many of the fundamental approaches and concepts of Critical Zone science are derived from decades of soil science and related research endeavors now applied to conceptualizing and constructing systems models that will allow scientists to predict the effects of ongoing land use and climate change on the Critical Zone.

Module Outline

In these three units, students will:

  • Define the CZ, stressing:
    • Importance and state of the CZ
    • Temporal and spatial scales of study
    • The science as a transdisciplinary and international pursuit
    • Observatory and environmental gradient approach
    • Outstanding questions
  • Build framework for considering CZ processes and function
    • Access and consider existing online data
    • Introduce system modeling, research approaches, infrastructure and sample design