Limited Submission Programs - NSF - Critical Zone Observatories (CZO)

Summary of Opportunity
NSF - Critical Zone Observatories (CZO)
OSP Deadline 01/31/13
Funding Agency Deadline 02/05/13
Funding or Award Criteria  

Program Description: The critical zone, where most terrestrial life thrives on Earth, is under unprecedented pressure due to human demands for food, water, space, and other resources. In this zone, from the top of the vegetation to the weathering front, multiple components of the Earth system interact through coupled processes that operate at different temporal and spatial scales. These coupled processes directly influence and are affected by climate, anthropogenic activity and cycles of water, nutrients, and other chemicals. They also modulate the effects of climatic, tectonic, biologic, and human drivers on the critical zone form, function, and evolution. As the critical zone is highly heterogeneous and complex, a network of Critical Zone Observatories (CZOs) would provide data needed to document processes and evaluate predictive models of how critical zone components co-evolve and respond to natural and anthropogenic pressures. Understanding and quantifying these changes are important for informing critical decisions on how humans can best mitigate, adapt or respond to slow or abrupt changes in the critical zone.

A conceptual system model would guide the design of CZO measurement strategies to determine the complex interactions governing critical zone form, function, and evolution. In turn, interdisciplinary CZO teams would refine and test these models using state-of-the-art CZO measurements that would flow from a variety of sources including in situ environmental sensors, geochemical and microbiological analyses, remote sensing, and surface and subsurface imaging. These system models would take into account feedbacks in time and space, quantify rates of change in the critical zone due to external drivers, be capable of reconciling observations from multiple scales, and be able to estimate parameters when direct observations are not available. Each CZO observatory is therefore part of the hypothesis/observation/model cycle that iterates in both directions. This iteration is required if we are to predict the fate of the critical zone and ecosystem services that they provide. Models can facilitate the design and optimization of observation systems; conversely, CZO observations can be assimilated into models to better define functional dependencies between forcing functions and constrain the range of effective responses to system forcing. A distinct advantage of networked CZOs is that the multiple sites offer opportunities for cross-validating models developed at other sites.

A comprehensive study of the critical zone requires that the CZO network includes a diverse set of sites with respect to (for example) lithology, climate, erosional/depositional settings, and land-use histories. Each CZO would have a research plan that includes data gathering, integration, and synthesis activities as well as training. These activities are expected to be readily integrated with those at other CZOs and to facilitate the participation of a broad range of scientists.

Additional documents that are useful descriptors of community planning related to this solicitation may be accessed through

We solicit proposals to establish the Critical Zone Observatory network through US-based observatories at which interdisciplinary research is conducted to address the common goal of predicting the fate of the critical zone and the ecosystem services it provides by examining integrative scientific questions about geological, physical, chemical, and biological processes that govern critical zone dynamics. Successful proposals will be motivated by pressing scientific questions and organized around a conceptual model, not by data gathering for site characterization alone. Successful proposals will be guided and implemented by an integrated field and modeling approach, with advancements in each component providing the impetus for improvements in the other. Each CZO in the network will be expected to:

  1. Identify one or more primary research focus/foci;
  2. Develop (and enhance over time) a unifying theoretical framework that couples hydrological, geochemical, geomorphological, sedimentological and biological processes;
  3. Measure and quantify the significant processes of the critical zone on appropriate time and space scales;
  4. Integrate efforts in several subfields addressing critical zone processes (e.g. hydrology, geochemistry, geobiology, geomorphology, sedimentology, pedology, and ecology);
  5. Develop and validate systems models to predict how the critical zone responds to external drivers such as anthropogenic actions, climate, biologic, hydrologic, and tectonic drivers; and assess how severely these impact the ecosystem services provided by the critical zone.
  6. Serve as a community resource to engage a broad cadre of investigators in research relevant to the critical zone;
  7. Adhere to centralized data management policies and use common data management tools;
  8. Be an active member of the CZO network.

In addition, proposals should:

  • Present and elaborate the questions to be investigated with an explanation of why the site proposed is optimal for answering these questions;
  • Present and elaborate the integrative models to be tested;
  • Describe the techniques and tools to be employed, including cyber-infrastructure, to acquire and disseminate field data;
  • Describe plans for instrument deployments considering (for example) the advantages of nested observatories;
  • Specify the data sets needed or available from archival sources to describe geological, physical, chemical, biological and other relevant characteristics of the site and to facilitate cross-site studies;
  • State policy for data access;
  • Describe modes of access to the observatory by scientists not supported by the CZO grant;
  • Present plans to implement education and outreach activities.

Investigators are encouraged, where appropriate, to work in association with existing projects, observational networks, experimental watersheds, long-term ecological research sites, research centers, or testing and evaluation facilities, whether supported by NSF or other agencies such as USEPA, USGS, USDA, DOE, NOAA, etc. The project description should make clear how the proposed work differs from and augments activities already supported. A letter stating the specifics of cooperation from the ongoing activity for the proposed project should be included as Supplementary Documentation.

Please see the solicitation for complete information.

Applicable Field(s)  
Number of Nominees Allowed

One (1)

Collaborative Proposals submitted as separate submissions from multiple organizations are NOT allowed for this competition. Instead, any proposal to the CZO solicitation should be a snigle submission that includes sub-award support for all partner organizations that are requesting funding from NSF. Any one institution may submit only one CZO proposal as Lead institution

Limit on Number of Proposals per PI: 1

Any individual may serve as PI or co-PI on only one proposal. An individual may serve as Senior Investigator on one additional proposal.

Required Internal Review Documents

Associate Deans or Designates should submit the following materials electronically to by 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 31, 2012:

  1. Dean's or ORU Director's Letter of Nomination
  2. Two-page maximum lay abstract describing the aims/needs of the proposed research project.
  3. Short bio sketch/CV of the UT PI

Your College may submit one (1) nomination for consideration.


Note to Potential Applicants

Internal review documents do not reflect the application requirements set forth by the sponsor. Please review solicitation carefully.

Nominee(s) Selected to Advance

Dr. Daniel Breecker, Jackson School of Geosciences

Posting Date 07/17/12