UK – China Critical Zone Observatory (CZO)


Using Critical Zone Science to Understand Sustaining the Ecosystem Service of Soil & Water (CZO)


The UK – China Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) Programme is a joint programme between the UK National Environment Research Council (NERC) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) which seeks to understand ways to address the challenges for the delivery of China’s ecosystems services in association with their agricultural production and urbanisation. This programme is supported by the Newton Fund which forms part of the UK governments Official Development Assistance (ODA) which focuses on outcomes that promote the long-term sustainable growth, the economic development and welfare of the developing country.

The programe aims to understand the role of soil and water within the framework of the Critical Zone, and use Critical Zone science in the provisioning of China’s key ecosystem services, including agriculture and climate mitigation.

Within this framework the scientific objectives are to:

1. Understand the importance of spatial variation and scale (from field to landscape) on the ability of soils and water within the critical zone (CZ) to perform their multiple functions.

2. Development of modelling approaches and improvement of model skill, with the integration of wider disciplines, in the prediction of resilience.

3. Within the context of environmental stressors within China (e.g. erosion, pollutants, extreme weather, changing agricultural practices, and water availability), seek to understand and improve the resilience of soils and water to perturbations.

The 5 Projects

The programme supports 5 UK – China research consortia, each of which is carrying out research to better understand the ecosystem services of soil and water resources in keys sites across China: ranging from the complex and fragile Karst ecosystems of Guizhou; the highly eroded Loess Plateau; the peri-urban agricultural soils of Shanghai; to the unique red soils of the Sunjia Critical Zone Observatory near Yangling. The programme aims to link more closely the 5 projects and establish a coherent research programme that can interface with other UK, China and international research programmes and networks. Together the projects aim to carry out internationally-leading scientific research that also achieves ODA outcomes for soil and water resources in China.


The transmissive critical zone: understanding the karst hydrology-biogeochemical interface for sustainable management


Using Critical Zone Science to Enhance Soil Fertility and Improve Ecosystem Services for Peri-Urban agriculture in China


SPECTRA: Soil Processes and Ecological Services in the Karst Critical Zone of SW China


Red Soil CZ: From Natural to Anthropogenic Evolution of Red Soil and its Impact on Ecosystem Function in the Critical Zone


Modelling and managing critical zone relationships between soil, water and ecosystem processes across the Loess Plateau

What is the Critical Zone?

Earth’s Critical Zone (CZ) is the skin on which we depend, the thin surface layer of the planet, from the surface of the bedrock to the top of the vegetation canopy, which determines life-sustaining resources. This layer is where rocks, soil, air, water and organisms interact regulating the local habitat and determining the resources available to sustain life, including human water quality and food supply.

Critical Zone science offers an integrating research framework that tackles soil and water with a focus on the interfaces between atmospheric, biological, hydrological and geological sciences. Whilst soil and water are important compartments of the CZ, and are major interfaces with above and below ground systems, they must be viewed in the holistic perspective where their processes and interfaces are part of the whole system.

Critical Zone Observatories (CZO) are field research facilities drawing together the critical mass of disciplines and expertise for transformative research and translation to applications. The UK-China programme has multiple CZO’s in China located in different environments from Peri-urban, Sunjia Red Soil CZO, Puding CZO, and Loess Plateau.


UK-China CZO Programme Coordinator Dr Sarah Dennis    |    Email: