1) Background: Critical Zone Processes in the Anthropocene
The Earth’s Critical Zone encompasses a suite of interconnected processes in the near-surface lithosphere, pedosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere (Brantley et al., 2007; Lin, 2010) (Fig. 1). Processes and interactions both within and between these various Critical Zone components supports life-sustaining ecosystem services and resources that establish the foundation for humanity (NRC, 2001). This includes the formation production of fertile soils, flourishing vegetation, productive rivers, lakes and oceans, and our life-sustaining atmosphere (Gaillardet, 2014; Guo and Lin, 2016).
Rapid population growth, land use intensification, and global environmental change are disturbing many of these fundamental Critical Zone processes. More than half of the Earth’s terrestrial surface is now impacted by anthropogenic activities (e.g., clearing, grazing, plowing, mining, and logging) (Hooke et al., 2012; Richter and Mobley, 2009). These changes are so widespread and pervasive that the great acceleration of socioeconomic development that occurred around 1950 (Fig. 2) has been recommended to delineate the dawn of the Anthropocene (Waters et al., 2016). Although the utility of adopting and delineating the Anthropocene as the current epoch is subject to debate (Crutzen, 2002; Ruddiman et al., 2015; Smith and Zeder, 2013), the concept effectively highlights both the nature and the extent of our global impact on Earth’s Critical Zone.
Soil forming processes and ecosystem services provided by the pedosphere are central to the Critical Zone (Banwart et al., 2011; Lin, 2010). Many of these processes have been disturbed by the agricultural intensification that coincided with the great acceleration resulting in unsustainable land use practices now outpacing soil formation processes (Brantley et al., 2007). As agricultural landscapes now cover an area equivalent to what was scoured during the last glacial maximum (Amundson et al., 2007), the broad-scale intensification of anthropogenic activities has resulted in significant on- and off-site impacts. On-site, soil loss has resulted in decreases in soil fertility and agricultural yields (Ladha et al., 2009) threatening the ability to feed the world’s growing population (Brantley et al., 2007). Off-site, the excess delivery of particulate matter downstream is degrading riverine, lacustrine, and estuarine ecosystems (Bilotta and Brazier, 2008; Clark, 1985; Owens et al., 2005).
The challenge, as noted by Brantley et al., (2007), is that despite our society having over 10,000 years of experience working with soils, our conceptual and quantitative models remain inadequate at predicting Critical Zone dynamics under current conditions. Notwithstanding growing pressure for improved environmental management, we still have a limited capacity to predict changes in the Critical Zone in response to anthropogenic activities owing to the multiple spatial and temporal scales at which these complex processes and feedbacks are manifest. As river basin systems are impacted by many of these processes, a deep understanding of soil-sediment continuum dynamics may provide a valuable framework for evaluating the disturbance response of Critical Zone processes. Understanding these processes may also provide land and resource managers with the information necessary to manage both the on-site and off-site effects of accelerated soil erosion.