Volume 44 | Number 1 | Spring 2014

Digging for Data

Spring 2014 Issue | By Andrew Taylor

When it comes to climate and carbon, what's under our feet may be as important as what is up in the air.

Our planet's soil — what Idaho State University's ecosystem ecologist Dr. Kathleen Lohse calls the "skin of the earth" — sustains life on the terrestrial portion of the earth and holds about three times more carbon than the atmosphere. Scientists from multiple disciplines are trying to determine how all that carbon in the soil affects the global carbon and climate cycles.

"Soil is a living, breathing component of the surface of the earth," Lohse said. "It plays a very strong role in regulating climate, holding water for agriculture and for many other activities that we are dependent on."

The Earth's critical zone, defined as the thin layer of our planet between the tree canopy to the bottom of our drinking water aquifers, supports nearly all human activity, providing water, food, nutrients and more. As the human population grows, the critical zone experiences ever-increasing pressure that could lead to a breakdown in its ability to support our growing population. The so-named "critical zone observatories," or CZOs, are research field sites that provide a major international capability to advance our knowledge in sustaining them.

"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," Lohse said. "A small change in that large pool of carbon could have large effects on atmospheric concentrations."

But the scientists have a big problem: they lack good data.

To help fill this void, the National Science Foundation established a CZO network throughout the United States in 2007. Thanks to a $2.5 million NSF grant to ISU, one of those CZOs has been created in Southwest Idaho on the Reynolds Creek Experimental Watershed in Owyhee County.

The CZO site selection process is highly competitive. Prior to 2013, six CZOs were located across the continental United States and one in Puerto Rico. This year, four more CZOs were approved and established. Other universities involved in the establishment of new CZOs include Duke University, University of Illinois and the University of California, Berkeley.

ISU will work closely with Boise State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, who will each receive sub-awards from this NSF grant.

The Reynolds Creek watershed is a perfect laboratory for researchers from these three institutions to pursue carbon research.

"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 grant's principal investigator.

The scientific infrastructure in place in the 93-square-mile watershed includes numerous stations collecting climate, precipitation, stream flow and snow and soil data under a wide variety of conditions. The core data collection network dates back to the 1960s.

This project will utilize scientists from a wide array of backgrounds, including hydrologists, geologists, ecologists, microbiologists, soil scientists and more.

"This is a big accomplishment not only for ISU, BSU and the ARS but for the entire state of Idaho," Lohse said.