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Last updated: 2022, June 12

What is soil erosion - Soil erosion causes, types, harm, prevention methods

Dr. Oleksii Orlov,

PhD in Agriculture

Photo source: ok diario

Soil erosion is the loss of soil cover. In the photo, heavy rain created a large gully in a field in Ethiopia - this is water erosion of the soil

 

Photo source: Greenpeace, Vilen Lupachik

Soil erosion is the natural force that creates ravines and valleys and destroys mountains. Further we will consider this natural process in more detail. At the photo - the rapid growth of ravines in the Novosibirsk region, Russian Federation

 

What is soil erosion?

Soil erosion is the displacement of the topsoil; it is a form of soil degradation.

Soil erosion is a natural process that is caused by the action of the activity of erosion factors:

  • water

  • ice (glaciers)

  • snow

  • air (wind)

  • plants

  • animals

  • humans

Surface runoffs of the topsoil after heavy rain -  water erosion of soil (photo © Dr. Oleksii Orlov)

 

According to these agents, erosion is sometimes subdivided into:

  • water erosion

  • glacial erosion

  • snow erosion

  • wind (aeolian) erosion

  • zoogenic erosion

  • anthropogenic erosion

There are two main types of soil erosion - water erosion and wind erosion.

 

Water erosion of soil - the displacement of soil from surface of field, including the soil and and subsoil, followed by their deposition in relief depressions and water bodies by action of water flows: rainfall and surface runoffs.

Short film about - what is water soil erosion

 

Wind (eolean) soil erosion - the blowing of soil particles by a strong wind.

Short film about - what is wind soil erosion

 

Photo source: OiR.mobi

Dust storms are a manifestation of wind erosion. Dust storms are especially harmful to agricultural regions with a lot of arable land, as well as where there are a lot of sandy soils. Dust storms destroy the top, fertile soil layer, humus - thereby greatly reducing fertility and causing direct financial harm

 

Water and wind erosion always act together on the soil.

The definition of soil erosion involves the destruction of the surface layer of the Earth due to the effects of precipitation and wind. Erosion is estimated to have destroyed nearly 2 billion hectares of arable land over the past two centuries. For comparison - now agricultural land is cultivated on an area of ​​1.5 billion hectares.

A film about what soil is and how billions of dollars are lost due to soil erosion around the World. This film tells the reality of soil resources around the world, covering the issues of degradation, urbanization, land grabbing and overexploitation; the film offers options to make the way we manage our soils more sustainable (source: IASS Potsdam)

 

Types of soil erosion are depending on what the main factors have a destructive effect to the soil.

There are two main factors - water and wind, and the combined action of water and wind.

 

What causes and types of soil erosion?

For reasons of occurrence, a distinction is made between natural and anthropogenic erosion caused by the consequences of human activities, for example, the felling of forest belts.

Water erosion of soil is subdivided into the following types:

  • Rainfall erosion - soil destruction by blows of rain drops

  • Surface runoff erosion - washout of material from fields, especially pronounced on slopes

  • The formation of ravines, gullies, valleys as a result of the action of strong flows / runoffs of water (more strong type of surface runoff erosion)

Photo source: Rosalyn Lehman, Iowa Learning Farms

The restoring stream banks can harm to agricultural fields, annually destroying a portion of the arable land. If part of the field is washed away by water, then the annual losses can be very significant and amount to hundreds thousands of dollars per year, since each ton of black soil or floodplain fertile soil is expensive

 

Erosion of man-made origin - under man-made impacts associated with plowing, soil exposure as a result of destruction of vegetation and forest belts, works during construction, quarrying, dumping, deforestation, etc. There is a sharp increase in the volume of soil losses in as a result of erosion, due to the destruction of natural obstacles to soil washout

 

Water erosion of soil - displacement of the soil, seeds and seedlings from the field by rainfall and surface runoffs

 

Soil erosion also differs in the speed of the processes occurring:

  • normal or geological (natural)

  • fast, destructive, most often - anthropogenic

But anthropogenic erosion is not always will be fast.

 

Irrigation soil erosion is one of the types of anthropogenic soil erosion, which occurs when the regulations, rules and norms of irrigation in irrigated agriculture are not observed. And more often it is associated with the use of such outdated types of irrigation as surface irrigation or improper sprinkling. Also, improper irrigation contributes to soil salinity.

Normal erosion is present in areas with natural vegetation cover as well as in artificially created pastures. In such conditions, the soil can recover, since the process of soil formation under such conditions does not stop.

Fast erosion occurs when natural vegetation is removed, such as through tillage. This happens when agricultural land is misused.

This process is present in all fields, but it is especially pronounced in areas where there is a dissected relief - slopes, hills. And it manifests itself very strongly - in the steppe or forest-steppe, with neglect of anti-erosion measures.

The most dangerous type of water erosion of soil is the formation of ravines, which can form even from small surface runoff. The control of this type erosion is difficult due to high financial costs and in most cases made by planting of shrubs and forests along the edges of ravines. In this case plants keep soil with their roots and strengthen the slopes

The formation of a ravine occurs rather quickly. The streams of water first wash out a small gully, then a small ravine, which can become simply gigantic in two or three seasons. However, it happens that a large ravine is formed during just one spring.

 

Water erosion of soil it is quickly process - the streams of water first wash out a small gully, then a small ravine, which can become simply gigantic in two or three seasons. At the photo water erosion in field with sunflower and reach black soil  (photo © Dr. Oleksii Orlov)

 

And the financial costs of eliminating such, even small gullies that threaten fields and buildings, can be very significant.

 

Wind soil erosion damage

Wind erosion can cause severe damage, both over a long time and in just a few hours. Dust (black) storms quickly carry away the topsoil, sometimes for many hundreds of kilometres. Sometimes such dust, settling, falls asleep on whole bodies of water.

An example from the 50s of the last century can be cited. Then, during the development of virgin lands in the steppes of Kazakhstan and the western part of the Altai Territory, moldboard plowing was used. After sowing, a drought began, and then a strong wind came to the territory from the West. He took away a significant part of the fertile layer of soil. Dust from the Kazakh and Altai steppes settled even in the Krasnoyarsk Territory, at a distance of 1000-1500 km. These soils have not recovered until now.

 

From field to desert or how fields turn into desert...  Wind erosion of soil - a dust storm carried away the entire layer of fertile soil from a field in the Chernihiv Region of Ukraine, 2020. Field near Semenivka village, Ukraine (photo © Andriy Dudko). Using of forest lines, water keeping technologies, CTF, Strip Till and professional consulting from Agricultural Consulting Service will help farmers already now

 

Water and wind erosion always occur simultaneously. In this case, the sequence is as follows. In spring, streams of water wash away the soil. Then soil dries up. The next stage - the dried soil turns into dust. This happens most often when the soil is tilled repeatedly. Then, the dusty soil is blown out and transferred to other territories.

To reduce the blowing off of the fertile soil layer, dry soil should not be cultivated. Snow retention is also very effective through the use of modern technologies that allow you to leave stubble in the field - No-Till & Strip-Till and CTF.

The use of special snow plows for snow retention is much less efficient financially, but is often common in countries such as Kazakhstan and Russia.

Soil drift as a result of dry soil cultivation reduces soil fertility and there is an increased load on equipment, the tractor and tillage implements wear out faster and more fuel and money are spent (photo © Dr. Oleksii Orlov)

 

In the case when heavy rains begin in summer, the soil that has turned into dust is displacement off by small and large rain streams. If the rains continue, the soil is runoff away from field to a much more extent and eroded. That is, the process of formation of ravines begins.

 

Soil erosion in the World

Global rates of soil displacement by water erosion. The map illustrates the soil erosion rates divided into seven classes according to the European Soil Bureau classification. The colour gradation from green to red indicates the intensity of the predicted erosion rates. Being a global model, the map also covers areas where there is no direct anthropogenic impact. Borelli, P. et al., 2017  (source of picture: JOINT RESEARCH CENTRE)

 

Map of wind soil erosion in the World (source of picture: Soil map and soil climate map, USDA-NRCS, Soil Science Division, World Soil Resources, Washington D.C.)

 

Soil erosion is widespread throughout the World.

It poses a financial threat to countries that are the leading exporters of grain in the World, that cultivate the soil and grow field crops in a temperate climate zone and in dry climate zones: the USA, Canada, Australia, Ukraine, the European Union, the Russian Federation, and Kazakhstan.

In Ukraine, there is strong soil erosion in the steppe and forest-steppe zones, as well as in other soil and climatic zones where fields are plowed.

In the Russian Federation, wind erosion is manifested in all regions where there is agriculture and where the soil is cultivated. The area at risk is more than 45 million hectares, including 38.7 million hectares of arable land.

In Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan) - in the foothills and valleys, where agriculture and irrigation are developed, water erosion of soil is highly developed.

Surface irrigation of winter wheat in Uzbekistan. Surface irrigation leads not only to water erosion and soil washout, but also to soil salinization. More efficient drip irrigation, which is now widely used (photo © Dr. Oleksii Orlov)

 

In these regions, the transition from surface irrigation through irrigation ditches to drip irrigation helps to reduce soil erosion in orchards, vineyards and vegetable growing. In more desert regions, wind erosion is very developed - blowing off the topsoil, both in the warm season and in winter, when there is no snow.

 

Map of rainfall erosivity. South America, the Caribbean, Central Africa and parts of Western Africa and South East Asia have highest rainfall erosivity (source of picture: JOINT RESEARCH CENTRE)

 

In Brazil, Argentina and other countries of South America and countries of the tropical and subtropical belt, soil erosion is very common, caused by the deforestation of natural forests and shrubs to create plantations of various crops, vegetables, orchards, and vineyards.

Zoogenic erosion from domestic animals is present in Africa, Central Asia, in a dry climate, in a desert climate, in mountainous regions, and where grazing livestock (sheep, cows, goats) is developed, with a heavy load on pastures and a very high number of animals (the maximum possible numbers), often domestic animals eat up all vegetation and the soil degrades, and huge areas become unsuitable for pastures, desertification occurs.

The maximum possible number of sheep is kept in Uzbekistan, they eat up all the vegetation and the soil degrades due to the lack of vegetation - desertification occurs. Such processes are typical for many desert and mountain regions of the World (photo © Dr. Oleksii Orlov)

 

Largely affected by land erosion in countries such as Canada, USA, China, India, Australia, most African, European and Asian states. For example, in just three centuries, the Sahara Desert moved 400 kilometres to the South.

In the United States, by the second half of the 1950s, erosion had destroyed nearly 40 million hectares of arable land. At that time, almost 115 million hectares of arable land were destroyed or seriously damaged there. Another 313 million hectares were damaged by erosion.

But now the United States, Canada and Australia are spending huge sums on the education of farmers and the fight against soil erosion, so in these countries work to combat erosion is carried out regularly, modern methods are being introduced that have already significantly reduced soil erosion and agricultural land degradation:

  • planning of roads, dams and territories into square sectors

  • drainage systems, directing water flows and facilitating drainage

  • use of No-Till & Strip-Till

  • correct planning of crop rotations

  • cover crops

  • CTF

  • drip irrigation, including SDI subsurface drip irrigation

  • investments in forest belts creation

  • use of modern machines and machine management systems

Therefore, in these countries, the risks of erosion are the smallest, in comparison with other countries engaged in the cultivation of field crops and deforestation.

Soil conservation technologies that leave stubble on the surface of the soil help protect the soil from erosion. At the photo - field of sunflower that sowing by Strip-Till technology in Ukraine

 

Consequences caused of soil erosion

Due to the erosion of the country's economy and global economy, the damage is enormous.

Global status of human induced soil degradation (source of picture: UN FAO). Many fields in World by by agricultural action of humans are degraded and it very significant financial losses!

 

The potential of soil fertility decreases, the chemical and physical properties of soils deteriorate, and the biological activity of the soil decreases. As a result, the yield decreases and the quality of agricultural products. The efficiency of the use of fertilizers and pesticides also decreases. As a result, huge amounts of money are lost due to soil erosion.

Erosion processes are present literally everywhere. Soil erosion leads to weathering of humus and disruption of the ecological balance, which can already lead to an ecological disaster.

During dust storms, the loss of the humus layer is enormous. In a dust storm on a plowed field, the loss of humus per day can be more than 10,000 years in a field with natural grass cover!

In some zones, the erosion of fertile soils is 5-15 times higher than their formation.

 

Soil erosion control

Currently, various technologies and ways to solve the problems of soil erosion are used to protect soil from erosion:

  • planning of roads, dams and territories into square sectors

  • drainage systems, directing water flows and facilitating drainage

  • reduced use of plowing

  • modern technologies make it possible to completely abandon pre-sowing cultivation when growing late crops - sunflower, soybeans, corn, sorghum - thus reducing soil erosion and moisture loss before sowing these crops

  • leave stubble in the field for the winter, snow retention, limitation of runoff

  • deep ripping (subsoiling) of fields

  • complete rejection of fallows

  • use of No-Till & Strip-Till

  • correct planning of crop rotations

  • vertical tillage

  • cover crops

  • correct planning of the directions of tillage (across the slope or contouring)

  • creation of terraces on slopes

  • CTF

  • drip irrigation, including SDI subsurface drip irrigation

  • investments in forest belts

  • mulching and soil covering in vegetable growing

  • use of modern machines and machine management systems

  • regulation of the number of sheep, goats and cows in pastures

  • transfer of arable land to pastures, orchards, vineyards and plantations of energy crops, development of the greenhouse business

  • strict ban on cutting down forest belts and burning stubble

  • prevention of fires

 

The main methods are: crop rotations and abandonment of fallow (alternation of crops in time and in the territory or only in time), providing soil protection, Strip-Till, CTF and cover crops, creating meadows and pastures on poor soils and washed-out slopes, using cover crops and grass aisles in orchards, berry and vineyards.

The protection of soils from wind erosion is facilitated by such a method as planting forest belts and shrubs (forest melioration).

A good effect is provided by irrigation and drainage facilities.

A positive result is brought by the stubble left in the field for the winter (No-Till & Strip-Till), and the limitation of snow drift in winter conditions - the use of shields that provide snow retention in places where there are no forest belts (in forest belts breaks).

Rolling snow in strips, its blackening, the use of snow plows is much less effective and in most cases, like, for example, the introduction of saltpeter (or any nitrogen fertilisers) by frozen soil, are fake and ineffective agricultural practices.

An excellent effect, a decrease in erosion and an increase in soil fertility, is also provided in the case when there is a rejection of pure fallows. Modern technologies make it possible to abandon pure fallows even in arid climates and when using crop rotations saturated with sunflower. Pure steam is a very outdated system and money down the drain! After all, if nothing is grown on the field, then the profit will not be obtained, and the soil will be subject to severe erosion.

If soil not covered of plants and only cultivated that after heavy rains as at this photo may be strong surface runoffs and by the action of water erosion many tones of soil will be removed from field. It is significant fertility and financial losses! (photo © Dr. Oleksii Orlov)

 

Terraces on slopes are a good way to protect plants and soil from erosion by strong flows of water after rains action. As on this photo - famous domestic stone terraces of grape plantations in Hessigheim, Germany (photo source: Needpix)

 

Soil erosion risks are increasing due to climate change.

Against soil erosion, only joint, comprehensive use of all methods is effective. All investments and additional costs aimed at preventing and preventing soil erosion, the using of modern technologies (Strip-Till, CTF, cover crops, etc.). Contrary to popular belief that these investments have a long payback period - they can pay off in just for several years, a higher yield, an increase in soil fertility, an improvement in the microclimate. And also measures aimed at combating erosion, such as the creation of forest plantations, not only reduce financial risks, but also improve the quality of life!

 

 

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