Campus News

UGA receives $1.4M to study ‘critical zone’ in national forest

Five UGA researchers are joining with the U.S. Forest Service to calculate how past land use has influenced the present environment and how it will impact the future.

They were awarded $1.4 million from an overall $5 million National Science Foundation grant led by Duke University to set up one of 10 national observatories focused on the thin outer layer of the planet most important for human life. Geologists have dubbed it the Earth’s “critical zone,” which includes everything from deep bedrock up to the tops of trees.

Other participants in the five-year study include Georgia Tech, the University of Kansas, Mississippi State University and Roanoke College.

UGA’s researchers will help establish the new Calhoun Critical Zone Observatory located in the Calhoun Experimental Forest, a unit of Sumter National Forest in South Carolina.

Sumter National Forest is a 200,000-acre forest created in the 1930s on abandoned farmland and heavily logged forestland in the southern Piedmont. Suffering from soil erosion and overall land degradation, the U.S. Forest Service spent decades developing management practices to restore the land by setting up experimental watersheds, planting trees and launching a number of long-term studies to monitor progress on what was called at the time a representation of the “poorest Piedmont conditions.”

Each UGA researcher brings unique strengths to this interdisciplinary critical zone observatory, also called a CZO:

• Alexander Cherkinsky, a senior research scientist in the Center for Applied Isotope Study, will analyze the soil’s carbon turnover rates as a result of anthropogenic and climate changes by studying its isotopic composition, including radiocarbon analyses.

• Daniel Markewitz, a professor with the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, will be studying the forest’s soils to determine spatial patterns from historical erosion as well as linking soil attributes with forest stand conditions.

• Don Nelson, an assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences’ anthropology department, will study historic and current human interactions with the land and will develop, in partnership with land managers and forest users, ways to effectively communicate critical zone science.

• Paul Schroeder, a professor in Franklin College’s geology department, will study long-term climate changes as recorded in the rocks and soils of the area to determine how fast shifts in the landscape took place.

• Aaron Thompson, an assistant professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ crop and soil sciences department, will focus on examining the chemistry of soils at the molecular level. He will study how human activities influence the way soil minerals and carbon interact to form either stable soil organic matter or generate carbon dioxide gases.

In addition to the UGA researchers, Mac Callaham, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station on UGA’s South Campus and an adjunct professor in the Odum School of Ecology, will be studying soil organisms, such as ants and earthworms. He is interested in determining how the different organisms affect the soil and how water moves through the system.