Been thinkin' about CZS

Published March 10, 2021

By Joe Mavretic

Last week we tried to put a jigsaw puzzle together and was reminded that I’ve been thinking about a fascinating new project going on in North Carolina. 
Like a jigsaw puzzle, whenever confronted with a complicated task, most of us have been taught to divide it into smaller, simpler parts, work on each part and then put them all together. 
For decades, the earth we live upon has been divided into geology, biology, hydrology and a lot of other "Ologies" with each one studied independently. Over at Duke University, in the Nicholas School of the Environment, this is changing. 
Some brilliant scientists in the Nicholas School are putting all those "Ologies" together and calling it, CRITICAL ZONE SCIENCE (CZS). They are interested in, and focused on, all the connections within the earth’s surface. The world we live in, on, and depend upon. What they are studying is our earth’s skin-from the rocks at the bottom all the way up to the tops of trees. This isn’t a wide swath. 
The world’s tallest tree is a 380 foot redwood named Hyperion and the deepest roots of a fig tree in South Africa go down about 400 feet. In North Carolina, our earth’s skin is only about 200 feet from treetop to taproot. CZS is a brand new scientific approach that we are going to hear about for a long time. The results of CZS will effect the way we grow food, the way we practice forestry, many of the ways we think about our environment, and the way we understand our place on our planet. 
This is 21st century science that had its start in 2001, got some grant money in 2007, and included Duke in 2014. Like much of beginning science, it is small in scope, involves a few dedicated people, and isn’t getting much media coverage. That’s the nature of emerging scientific curiosity Duke’s Calhoun Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) in North Carolina. 
Relationships between gases, water, soil, organisms, and humans that we either take for granted, or don’t even think about, are at the heart of Calhoun. The scientists at Calhoun are also learning new, interdisciplinary ways of using emerging instruments to gather information, correlate data and results. This is complicated, life-changing science that will effect every one of us. This project will alter the ways we think about the air we breathe, the water we drink, what we eat, and how we are connected to the natural world that surrounds us.
What a few really smart folks are discovering at Calhoun today will become common knowledge for our grandchildren. CZS is worth our attention.