mountain belts and sedimentary basins, active fault networks, volcanoes, groundwater reservoirs, and soil systems. Research at all of these scales has been accelerated by a combination of conceptual advances and across-the-board improvements in observational capabilities and information technologies. The committee has identified six specific areas, organized here by proximity and scale, in which the opportunities for basic research are especially compelling:

  1. Integrative studies of the “Critical Zone” the heterogeneous, near-surface environment in which complex interactions involving rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms regulate the natural habitat and determine the availability of life-sustaining resources. Many science disciplines—hydrology, geomorphology, biology, ecology, soil science, sedimentology, materials research, and geochemistry—are bringing novel research tools to bear on the study of the Critical Zone as an integrated system of interacting components and processes. During the next decade, basic research will be able to address a wide spectrum of interconnected problems that bear directly on societal interests:

    • terrestrial carbon cycle and its relationship to global climate change, including the temporal and spatial variability of carbon sources and sinks and the influence of weathering reactions,

    • quantification of microbial interactions in mineral weathering, soil formation, the accumulation of natural resources, and the mobilization of nutrients and toxins,

    • dynamics of the land-ocean interface, which governs how coastal ocean processes such as tides, waves, and currents interact with river drainage, groundwater flow, and sediment flux,

    • coupling of the tectonic and atmospheric processes through volcanism, precipitation, fluvial processes, glacier development, and erosion, which regulate surface topography and influence climate on geological time scales, and

    • formation of a geological record that encodes a four-billion-year history of Critical-Zone processes, including environmental variations caused by major volcanic episodes, meteorite impacts, and other extreme events.

  1. Geobiology, the study of how life interacts with the Earth and how it has changed through geological time. By combining the powerful tools of genomics, proteinomics, and developmental biology with new techniques from geochemistry, mineralogy, stratigraphy, and paleontology, geobiologists are now better equipped to investigate a variety of fundamental problems:

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