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September 22, 2020

Land-use change. Environmental change. Extreme natural events. Wildfires and hurricanes. All are impacting the planet’s so-called critical zone, where water, air, soil, rock and life interact.

To explore these overlapping disturbances to the critical zone, the realm that spans from the treetops to the Earth’s bedrock, University of Vermont researchers have been awarded a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The UVM team will focus on snow-dominated ecosystems across the U.S. Comprised of disciplines from engineering to soil chemistry, the team will use big data, earth science and complex systems tools to investigate how short- and long-term disruptions to the critical zone affect its ability to resist and recover.

“We’ll explore multiple dimensions of the critical zone, where essential, life-sustaining processes occur,” says lead investigator Julia Perdrial, Associate Professor in UVM Geology and a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Environment. “We’re working towards having the data and statistical tools to understand the complex, multiple dimensions that interact to produce the outcomes experienced by people and nature.”

The project includes scholars from four UVM colleges and six Gund fellows, including Perdrial (CAS) and co-Investigators Gund Fellow Donna Rizzo (CEMS), Gund alumna Kristen Underwood (CEMS), Gund Fellow Byung Lee (CEMS), and Regina Toolin (CESS). Collaborators include Gund Affiliate Scott Hamshaw (CEMS), Gund Fellow Leon Walls (CESS), and Mike Blouin (RSENR). External collaborators include Erin Seybold (University of Kansas), Ben Abbott (Brigham Young University), Adrian Harpold (University of Nevada) and Gabrielle Boisrame (Desert Research Institute).

“It’s a really great team of so many different people that come from different disciplines, different career stages, that come together working on this,” says Perdrial. The team’s research, analysis and outreach activities will help to inform future decisions about how humans and the environment should interact.

The team also plans to complement existing teacher development efforts (Champlain Research Experience for Secondary Teachers) with critical zone and data science programming and collaborate with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Both efforts are centered around  place-based educational programs that integrate data science and Earth sciences with a focus on equity in scholarship and research.

“The critical zone research project comes at an urgent point in time when the value of science is being put in question. One of the primary goals of the project is to educate teachers and K-16 populations of students on the critical importance of science in society today,” says co-PI Regina Toolin, Associate Professor in UVM’s Department of Education.

The project is one of 10 new Critical Zone Collaborative Network awards funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, totaling $10.5 million per year, for five years.

Other projects will investigate the effect of urbanization on the critical zone, processes in deep bedrock and their relationship to the critical zone, and changes in the coastal critical zone related to rising sea levels, among others.

 The Gund Institute provided $5,000 to support grant data preparation.


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