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What is soil erosion?

Soil is naturally removed by the action of water or wind: such 'background' (or 'geological') soil erosion has been occurring for some 450 million years, since the first land plants formed the first soil.Even before this, natural processes moved loose rock, or regolith, off the Earth's surface, just as has happened on the planet Mars. In general, background erosion removes soil at roughly the same rate as soil is formed. But 'accelerated' soil erosion loss of soil at a much faster rate than it is formed is a far more recent problem. It is always a result of mankind's unwise actions, such as overgrazing or unsuitable cultivation practices. These leave the land unprotected and vulnerable. Then, during times of erosive rainfall or windstorms, soil may be detached, transported, and (possibly travelling a long distance) deposited. Accelerated soil erosion by water or wind may affect both agricultural areas and the natural environment, and is one of the most widespread of today's environmental problems. It has impacts which are both on-site (at the place where the soil is detached) and offsite (wherever the eroded soil ends up). More recently still, the use of powerful agricultural implements has, in some parts of the world, led to damaging amounts of soil moving downslope merely under the action of gravity: this is so-calledtillage erosion. Soil erosion is just one form of soil degradation. Other kinds of soil degradation include salinisation, nutrient loss, and compaction.

Erosion processes
Soil may be detached and moved by water, wind or tillage. These three however differ greatly in terms of:     where and when they occur what happens to the area that is being eroded (on-site impacts) how far the eroded soil is moved, and if the soil is moved away from the place where it was eroded, what happens as a result (off-site impacts).

Soil erosion in the past

Excavating the Kinderveld gully, central Belgium. (Source of photo: KU Leuven)

Erosion of soil by water and wind has been occurring naturally since the first land plants formed the first soil, during the Silurian Period. Accelerated erosion is, from a geological perspective, of very recent origin; yet on a human timescale, accelerated erosion is old. There is considerable archaeological evidence from many parts of the world that accelerated erosion by water (in particular) is often associated with

early agriculture. In a scientific context, water erosions association with unwise agricultural practices was first noted within during the early decades of the 20th century by pioneers of soil conservation such as Hugh Hammond Bennett in the USA, and subsequently by workers in other parts of the globe.

During the period of colonialism, the imposed adoption of European agricultural methods frequently led to accelerated erosion in developing countries. There, the problem often continues to the present day. In the last few decades of the 20th century, there was a worlwide move towards intensive agricultural technologies. These frequently leave the soil bare during times of heavy rainfall. As a result, previously problem-free areas of the world, such as A gully in Indiana, USA, in the 1930s. (Source of photo: unknown) north-west Europe, began to experience notable increases in water erosion.

The extent of soil erosion

Despite the global nature of the problem of erosion by water, even today we do not have good information regarding the global extent of erosion by water. Data on the severity of erosion is also often limited. The GLASOD study estimated that around 15 per cent of the Earth's icefree land surface is afflicted by all forms of land degradation. Of this, accelerated soil erosion by water is responsible for about 56 per cent and wind erosion is responsible for about 28 per cent.

The GLASOD estimate of global land degradation: note that this includes all forms of soil degradation, not just erosion. (From UNEP-GRID)

This means that the area affected by water erosion is, very roughly, around 11 million square km., and the area affected by wind erosion is around 5.5 million square km. The area affected by tillage erosion is currently unknown. Because soil is formed slowly, it is essentially a finite resource. The severity of the global erosion problem is only now becoming widely appreciated.

Erosion little and large

One of the things which makes soil erosion difficult to understand and so to predict and control is that it is affected by both common and rare events, and so must be studied over both short and long timespans. Erosion is also affected by factors on very small and very large spatial scales, and has its impacts over a similarly wide range of spatial scales.

The timescales of erosion

Soil erosion occurs both incrementally, as a result of many small rainfall or wind-blow

events, and more dramatically, as a result of large but relatively rare storms. It is the large storms which produce the big hard-to-miss erosional featues such as deep gullies. But while erosion due to small common events may appear insignificant on the field, its cumulative impact (both on the eroding field, and elsewhere) may, over a long timescale, be severe.

The spatial scales of erosion

Water erosions complex hierarchy of processes mean that erosion by water operates (and is studied) over a wide range of spatial scales. Rainsplash redistribution and the initiation of microrills and rills occur at a scale of millimeters. Rill erosion on agricultural hillslopes operates at a scale of meters to tens of meters, while gully erosion can occur on a scale of hundreds of meters, or even kilometers. The offsite impacts of erosion can affect very large areas, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of square kilometers. At every spatial scale, however, erosion is highly patchy. Even in areas of severe erosion, rates of soil loss can vary greatly from point to point on the landscape as the vagaries of topography and land use concentrate erosive flows on a wide range of spatial scales. Obvious erosion in one field can be found side-by-side with virtually untouched areas; and within an eroded field, the severity of erosion can vary markedly.

On-site effects of soil erosion

The main on-site impact is the reduction in soil quality which results from the loss of the nutrient-rich upper layers of the soil, and the reduced water-holding capacity of many eroded soils. In affluent areas of the world, accelerated water erosions on-site effects upon agricultural soils can be mitigated by increased use of artificial fertilizers; however this is not an option for much of the earths population. Erosions removal of the upper horizons of the soil results in a reduction in soil quality i.e. a diminution of the soils suitability for agriculture or other vegetation. This is because the eroded upper horizons tend to be the most nutrient-rich. Also, because the finest constituents of eroded soil tends to be transported furthest, eroded soils become preferentially depleted of their finer fraction over time; this often reduces their waterholding capacity. In other words, Erosion removes the cream of the soil. Increased use of artificial fertilizers may to an extent, and for a time, compensate for erosion-induced loss of soil quality where economic circumstances are favorable. This is not usually feasible in developing countries however. Loss of soil quality is a long-term problem; globally, soil erosion's most serious impact may well be its threat to the long-term sustainability of agricultural productivity, which results from the the 'on-site' damage which it causes.

Crops are particularly reliant on the upper horizons of the soil, which are the most vulnerable to erosion by water and wind. In this sense, erosion removes 'the cream of the soil'. Agricultural tillage also redistributes soil, resulting in thinner soils on topographically convex areas within a field. The damaging on-site effects of erosion, in terms of decreased agricultural yields, are well known in the developing countries of Africa and Asia. But even in the developed world there is cause for concern. Water erosion is locally severe in Australia, New Zealand, parts of the US, Southern Europe, and Eastern Europe (often as a result of the

The on-site impact of erosion: severe rilling on a hillslope at Rottingdean on the UK South Downs in 1987. Photo:John Boardman

former large state-controlled farms). In erosion-prone areas of the more affluent countries, productivity may be maintained in the short to medium term by increased fertiliser input. The effects of erosion are thus rarely acknowledged by farmers in richer countries. This strategy is however infeasible with regard to erosion in developing countries.

Off-site effects of soil erosion

In addition to its on-site effects, the soil that is detached by accelerated water or wind erosion may be transported considerable distances. This gives rise to 'off-site problems'.

Water erosions main off-site effect is the movement of sediment and agricultural pollutants into watercourses. This can lead to the silting-up of dams, disruption of the ecosystems of lakes, and contamination of drinking water. In some cases, increased downstream flooding may also occur due to the reduced capacity of eroded soil to absorb water. Movement of sediment and associated agricultural pollutants into watercourses is the major off-site impact resulting from erosion. This China's Yangtze River at the Three Gorges, in Hubei province. Note the sediment-rich water. (Source of photo: unknown) leads to sedimentation in watercourses and dams, disruption of the ecosystems of lakes, and contamination of drinking water. Rates of erosion do not have to be high for significant quantities of agricultural pollutants to be transported off-site. This is a shorterterm impact than loss of soil quality; in the more affluent areas of the world it can be the main driver for present-day soil conservation policy initiatives. A more minor off-site effect can occur in situations where eroded soil has a decreased capacity to absorb water: increased runoff may lead to downstream flooding and local damage to property. Another major off-site impact results from the agricultural chemicals that often move with eroded sediment. These chemicals move into, and pollute, downstream watercourses and water bodies.Where inputs of agricultural chemicals are high - as in the more affluent nations - costs of removing such pollutants from drinking water can be considerable. Therefore the on-site impacts of soil erosion are a present-day problem for many of the developing nations. Such on-site impacts will be a problem only in the long term future for developed areas: as such they are outside the relatively short time horizon within which their policy

A satellite view of the delta of the Yangtze River as it discharges into the East China Sea. The sediment plume is clearly visible. (Image: NOAA)

makers work.

In the short term however, erosion's off-site effects can be a notable problem for developed nations. Off-site impacts may therefore be the major driver for policy changes in such countries.

Soil erosion in the future

Knowledge gained about present-day soil erosion, and erosion in the past, can of course be a great help in suggesting where and how future erosion is likely to be a problem. However, it is likely that there will be some important differences. For example, future rates of water and wind erosion are likely to be affected both by climate change, as well as by The combined global land and marine surface temperature record from 1856 to 2003. The year 2003 was the second warmest on land use change. Rates of record. Also 2004 was the fourth warmest year globally. From water erosion, for example, the Climatic Research Unit are likely to respond to increases in rainfall in a nonlinear manner, with disproportionately greater increases occuring in wet years. There are, though, still large large gaps in our knowledge.