Intensively managed landscapes, regions of significant land use change, serve as a cradle for economic prosperity. However, the intensity of change is responsible for unintended deterioration of our land and water environments. By understanding present day dynamics in the context of long-term co-evolution of the landscape, soil and biota, IML-CZO aims to support the assessment of short- and long-term resilience of the crucial ecological, hydrological and climatic services. These include freshwater quality and quantity, provision for food, fiber and (bio)fuel, nutrient transformations, and terrestrial carbon storage. The goals of this project are to quantify the fluxes and transformations, as well as interactions, thresholds, and dynamic feedbacks of water, nutrients, and sediment in IMLs, and to characterize how rapid land use changes have altered the vulnerability and resilience of these systems. An observational network of two sites in Illinois (3,690-km2 Upper Sangamon River Basin) and Iowa (270-km2 Clear Creek Watershed), and a partner site in Minnesota (44,000-km2 Minnesota River Basin), which together capture a range of geological diversity of the low relief glaciated and tile-drained landscape in the Midwest, will drive the scientific and technological advances. The guiding hypothesis for the scientific effort is that through human modification, the critical zone of IMLs has passed a tipping point (or threshold) and has changed from being a transformer of material flux, with high nutrient, water, and sediment storage, to being a transporter. This change threatens the resilience of the landscape to accommodate future impacts associated with ongoing human activity, including climate change and bioenergy crop production. Further, it increases the vulnerability of IMLs by compromising the sustainability of key critical-zone services on which ecological systems and human populations depend. Understanding and quantifying shifts in the response of the critical zone to human development remains a challenge, and current assessments are at best qualitative. IML-CZO research will identify threats to resilience of the critical zone, and will also inform management strategies aimed at reducing the vulnerability of the system to human activities that threaten sustainability. We will develop methods and knowledgebase that are broadly applicable across the Midwest and similar low-gradient landscapes worldwide.

The project will provide leadership in developing the next generation of work force and informing sustainable management strategies. The IML-CZO will be a launch pad for several new educational and outreach initiatives, and it will be an integral resource to connect and partner with existing organizations. It will draw on and add to several resources and programs available throughout the region. The CZO will provide a testbed for student-led sensing and data collection initiatives, and is expected to stimulate new research ideas and further advance the sensors and measurements curriculum. The CZO will also work to bring together collaborations with National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, IOWATER, Minnesota and Illinois RiverWatch Volunteer programs to enlist “citizen scientist” (age 10 – 70) in the work of the CZO. IML-CZO will also serve as a training ground for several undergraduate and graduate students, and post-doctoral research associates by engaging them in interdisciplinary research.

Praveen Kumar (PI)