A Beginner’s Course in Soil Erosion: Everything You Need to Know

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Soil erosion is a natural occurrence in nature. However, humans have increased the rate at which soil erosion occurs. In areas where soil erosion is prevalent, it can lead to famine and other health complications if left unchecked.

Forests hold onto nutrients and organic matter that help soil for months and years. But, when farmers or businesses clear land to grow crops, that protection goes away. As much as a third of the planet’s surface is affected by soil erosion, equating to about 40% of the planet’s arable land. If officials don’t address the rapidly changing soil landscape, these numbers can have far-reaching effects.

What is soil erosion?

Soil erosion is when the top layer of the soil washes away due to weathering or human activity. As a result, landslides, floods, and poor crop yields become prevalent. Researchers measure erosion by the average annual soil loss rate. For example, one ton per square kilometer/square mile/per year is a standard measurement for soil loss.

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

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What causes soil erosion?

Rainfall or extreme weather such as hurricanes and blizzards cause water erosion. Soil erodes in wet conditions due to gravity and water pressure.

Wind erosion happens when the wind blows away the surface soil after dry periods. In areas with high wind speeds, the topsoil from the fields could fly into the air and become airborne dust.

Unfortunately, human activity also plays a big role in soil erosion. When people plow significant amounts of land, it contributes to soil erosion. Aggressive farming and plowing can destroy the grass and other vegetation that hold the ground together, making it more susceptible to flooding.

Tree roots provide stability but can’t receive nutrients if the soil dries out.

Soil erosion prevention methods

As humans, it is possible to work together to mitigate the effects of soil erosion.

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Erosion control blankets

Conservation workers can use an erosion control blanket, from leading providers like Granite Seed, to protect the soil from rainfall. An erosion control blanket is a fabric made of polypropylene or new biopolymers and has holes for water to pass through. This permeability allows water to soak into the ground and keeps the topsoil from washing away.

Seeding

To prevent soil erosion in farmlands, farmers can use grasses and other plants to keep the earth in place. When grasses are longer than usual, it’s called “natural” or “no-till farming.” No-till farming is when the soil isn’t plowed and reseeded after harvest.

Apply mulch

Applying mulch to the topsoil acts as a barrier. Mulch covers the soil and prevents water from eroding it.

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Cover crops

To stop or prevent water erosion, farmers can plant grasses or legumes in their fields between seasons of other crops. These plants are called “cover crops.” Cover crops hold the soil in place when no other plant is available, such as when farmers first plant the field.

Farmers plow over the cover crop and turn it into the soil, adding nutrients. This method is an effective way to build topsoil while also preventing soil erosion.

Build terraces

Terraces are ridges of soil built to prevent water erosion by channeling runoff.

Plant windbreaks

Windbreaks keep soil from being blown away by the wind. Workers can construct these windbreaks with trees or shrubs to help support biodiversity.

Effects of soil erosion

If the world doesn’t utilize the above prevention techniques, soil erosion will devastate land and people.

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Arid climate

As the topsoil fades away, an arid climate begins to take effect. It affects the biodiversity of the ecosystem and contributes to air pollution. This type of climate also blocks the soil’s vegetation, which causes the area to turn into an agricultural wasteland.

Wastelands are usually inarable, and when rain falls, the soil can’t absorb it. Flooding and soil erosion increase, resulting in further loss of vegetation. Living in an arid climate can cause malnutrition among humans since crops can’t grow.

Depleted water supply

The sparse vegetation that remains after topsoil loss causes hard times for animals, leading to extinction. Plants usually use the water that remains, leaving animals thirsty. Lack of water decreases the diversity of animal species in an area.

Famine

In some areas, the threat of famine is constant. Farmers who live in areas with lost topsoil must relocate because their fields are no longer usable.

By 2050, as much as 90% of Earth’s soil may become eroded if humans do not intervene to maintain the earth.

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Deforestation and desertification

When soil erodes, it can also lead to deforestation. Tree roots play a crucial role in holding the ground together.

Such deforestation can lead to desertification. Desertification is when fertile land becomes arid, dry soil. When trees are cut down in an area, the land is more likely to erode. Desertification also contributes to air pollution as the soil becomes dry and dusty.

Natural disasters increase

Soil erosion also causes landslides, which can damage buildings and roads. These landslides can also lead to flooding.

How does soil erosion affect humans?

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Soil erosion can cause humans to become vulnerable to famine and other health complications.

Extreme land erosion impacts local economics, as citizens lose their income from farmable land.

The buck doesn’t stop there. Desertification leads to the loss of green spaces, and the resulting air pollution makes breathing more challenging. Oxygen comes from trees, so they cannot clean the air when they are cut down.

Thirst is also a crucial side effect of erosion. About 80% of the world’s fresh water supply is from groundwater tables located in soil that is near the Earth’s surface. When there is too much erosion, it can expose the groundwater table, making it susceptible to pollution and loss.

Lastly, soil can spread dust that contains disease-causing pathogens when it erodes. These can cause illnesses such as pneumonia, flu, and tuberculosis.

Final thoughts

Soil erosion is a global problem, but it is preventable. Using practices such as planting cover crops, utilizing erosion control blankets, planting trees, and building windbreaks are sustainable ways to build topsoil. Farming is necessary for food production, but that doesn’t mean it has to destroy the earth’s stability.