We live at the dynamic interface between the solid Earth and its outer fluid envelopes. This interface, extending from the outer vegetation canopy to the base of active groundwater, was recently named the Critical Zone because it supports life and is increasingly impacted by human actions. Understanding the complex interactions between processes that operate in and shape the Critical Zone requires interdisciplinary approaches that span wide spatial and temporal scales. Tectonic processes, weathering, fluid transport, and biological processes control the function and structure of the Critical Zone. Three Critical Zone Observatories recently established by the U.S. National Science Foundation are designed to integrate studies of process interactions up to the watershed scale. A goal of the program is to build the three independently conceived observatories into a network from which broader understanding – larger spatial scales but also deeper insight – can emerge.

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