NSF-funded study will examine critical interfaces for materials transport in the environment

8/19/2020 3:32:15 PM

Above: Intensively managed agricultural lands affect near surface production and transport of material fluxes, root zone biogeochemical environments, and storage, exchange and transformations in stream corridors, all of which serve as critical interfaces for whole watershed functioning.

A research team led by CEE professor Praveen Kumar has received a grant of more than $6 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study “critical interfaces” in the environment that affect the transport and transformation of materials such as water, sediment, carbon and nutrients. The new project entitled “Network Cluster CINet: Critical Interface Network in Intensively Managed Landscapes” is an outgrowth of work by a team of researchers to increase our understanding of the critical zone – the region of the landscape from the top of the plant canopy to the bedrock beneath.

In 2013, a multi-investigator team led by Kumar established the U.S. Midwest’s first Critical Zone Observatory, one of nine instrumented sites across the country funded by NSF to expand knowledge about the critical zone in Intensively Managed Landscapes – regions where humans have modified the earth’s landscape to suit societal needs. Through that research, the team concluded that critical interfaces – whether naturally occurring like floodplains and depressions or human-made like agricultural drainage and crop root systems – seem to exert disproportionately large control on the overall dynamics of critical zones. Furthermore, because these critical interfaces are undergoing rapid transition due to human activity and weather extremes, knowledge of how they function and respond is crucial to the sustainable management of Intensively Managed Landscapes.

The new NSF grant will allow the team to build on the existing network of observational sites by augmenting them with novel observational systems. The team will use innovative data analytic and machine learning techniques along with integrated modeling approaches to look at the structure, evolution and functioning of three critical interfaces that are particularly affected by human action and weather: the near-land surface, the active root zone and the river corridor. A closer look at these areas will have broad impact. A better understanding of the near-land surface interface is important for determining how agricultural activity intersects with critical zone processes and affects soil functioning and health. Together with the active root zone interface, it represents the foundation upon which sustainable agriculture in Intensively Managed Landscapes depends. The river corridor is a complex mix of several interfaces and functions as a biogeochemical reactor and critical zone filter. Improved understanding of connections between these interfaces is also important for addressing broader, far reaching environmental problems such as hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico and toxic algal blooms in the Great Lakes.

Praveen Kumar
Praveen Kumar
“This project is an example of convergence research that brings together scientists from many different backgrounds, and its findings will help us address a range of landscape management issues from enhancing agricultural productivity while maintaining soil health to managing sediment and nutrient transport to the Gulf of Mexico,” Kumar said.

Kumar is the Colonel Harry F. and Frankie M. Lovell Endowed Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. In addition to Kumar, the research team is led by Ashlee L. Dere, associate professor of geology at the University of Nebraska Omaha; Timothy Filley, professor, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University; and department alumna Allison Goodwell (MS 13, PhD 17), assistant professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Colorado at Denver. The multi-institution team also includes Bruce Rhoads (University of Illinois, Geography and Geographic Information Science), Alison Anders (University of Illinois, Geology), Jennifer Druhan (University of Illinois, Geology), Laura Keefer (Illinois State Water Survey), Erin Bauer (Illinois State Water Survey), Andrew Stumpf (Illinois State Geological Survey), Luigi Marini (National Center for Supercomputing Applications), Ximing Cai (University of Illinois, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Neal Blair (Northwestern University), Sean Schaeffer (University of Tennessee at Knoxville), Marian Muste (University of Iowa), Lisa Welps-Smith (Purdue University), Ted Kratschmer (National Great Rivers Research and Education Center), and Sarah Fisher (National Great Rivers Research and Education Center). Several students including Susana Roque-Malo and Leila Hernandez from CEE at Illinois contributed to the success of the proposal.

Related story: https://cee.illinois.edu/news/scientists-study-human-impact-midwestern-environment-new-nsf-funded-observatory