In order to address the challenges of global change, interdisciplinary research in terrestrial environmental science is of great importance. Several environmental research networks have already been established in order to monitor, analyse and predict the impact of global change on different compartments and/or matter cycles of the environment. Typically these environmental research networks have focused on specific research questions, and compartments, such as CarboEurope, FLUXNET and ILTER. In this paper, we propose the establishment of a network of terrestrial observatories, defined as a system consisting of the subsurface environment, the land surface including the biosphere, the lower atmosphere and the anthroposphere. Hydrological units will be used as the basic scaling units in a hierarchy of evolving scales and structures ranging from the local scale to the regional scale for multi-disciplinary process studies. Although terrestrial systems are extremely complex, the terrestrial component in most process-based climate and biosphere models is typically represented in a very conceptual and often rudimentary way. Remedying this deficiency is therefore one of the most important challenges in environmental and terrestrial research, and we suggest that terrestrial observatories could be an important step towards a new quality in environmental and terrestrial research.