According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), soil erosion is a widespread problem, leading to a loss of half the world’s topsoil in the last 150 years. No matter where you live or which industry you work in, soil erosion affects you.
What Causes Soil Erosion?
Many things cause erosion, but soil erosion can have multiple causes. Because soil is a non-renewable resource, protecting it is crucial. Nevertheless, to prevent soil erosion, you need to know what’s causing it and how to combat those factors.
Wind, Weather, and Water
One of the biggest causes of soil erosion is the wind, the weather, and water. Wind disperses topsoil, and a strong gale can move even large amounts of soil away from where it’s needed.
Tiny soil particles can dissolve in water, and larger particles get swept away, turned into mud, or added to the river basin as sediment. A flash flood can relocate vast amounts of soil, as well as ruining the land beneath it.
Weather patterns and the hydrological cycle are continually changing and are significant factors.
Soil is frequently under pressure from gravity. It gets pulled down hills and riverbanks, either incrementally or as part of a natural disaster, such as a landslide.
Water is also subject to Earth’s gravity and gets moved around, over, and under the soil.
Several human activities impact soil erosion, including:
Deforestation: The roots of plants and trees anchor the soil, helping to prevent erosion. The removal of vegetation leaves the ground exposed and vulnerable.
Logging: The logging industry clears vast areas of land, leaving soil unprotected from wind, water, and weather.
Mining and construction: As industries that move large amounts of soil around, mining and construction affect global soil erosion on a large scale.
Agriculture: Ground cleared for planting crops is significantly affected by soil erosion. Tillage, an agricultural technique used to prepare the soil for planting, is a significant contributor to soil erosion. Some of the chemicals farmers use can also affect soil erosion.
Megafauna is harmful to soil and contributes to erosion. Animals like cattle increase soil erosion by grazing the vegetation cover away. With less grass, there are less roots holding the soil, further increasing erosion. Megafauna also move soil around with their feet, crush vegetation.
Megafauna like moles have a significant impact on the soil due to their tunneling habits.
Soil is a critical factor in life-giving processes like food production, the cleansing of water, and how much oxygen plants release into the atmosphere. Therefore, healthy soil is essential. The ground beneath your feet even locks carbon away, preventing it from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.
A big part of soil health is biodiversity. Maintaining adequate soil biodiversity can improve the condition of your soil, as well as increase productivity. Biodiversity means the variety of life forms, or species, living in your soil.
Healthy soil usually includes:
A few vertebrates
Various earthworm species
Species of mites (20 - 30)
Close to 100 species of insects
Nematodes species (dozens)
Hundreds of types of fungi
Thousands of species of bacteria
How Does Soil Erosion Affect You?
Soil erosion affects everyone because of the impact it has on global food production and climate change. However, if you are a landowner or farmer, soil erosion comes with an extra set of problems.
If you own, run, or enjoy spending time on a nature reserve, or other natural spots, soil erosion is a big problem. Many animals, birds, insects, and microfauna rely on topsoil for food and breeding grounds. When this erodes, wildlife is displaced, and some species may become threatened.
One of the most significant industries affected by soil erosion is agriculture. Global food production depends on productive topsoil, but soil erosion has made 30% of arable land unproductive in the last 40 years.
Soil erosion can remove acres of land and tons of soil from your property. If your business or workplace uses that land and soil, erosion is going to have an impact on your livelihood.
Flooding is another consequence of soil erosion that can cause expensive damages to buildings and vehicles.
Soil erosion can contribute to flooding, blocked entryways, and removal of soil from your property.
If you spend a lot of time gardening, soil quality is a significant concern, and erosion may affect your plants or your ability to grow plants.
Public highways and other infrastructure can become blocked or damaged because of soil erosion. In extreme cases, landslides and other gravity-related soil issues can damage pylons, gates, trees, and even buildings.
Soil erosion at the shoreline can enlarge river beds and lakes and eat away at the waterline. Shoreline erosion removes land, and it can happen faster than you’d expect. The national average of land lost to shoreline erosion is 0.40 m (0.3 feet) per year. Imagine your land shrinking by nearly half a meter a year!
If shorelines expand, it will significantly impact harbors and boat ramps, which are always subject to erosion. Soil erosion may damage your boat ramp or outbuildings and cause collapse.
Other Effects of Soil Erosion
Soil erosion causes many problems across a wide variety of industries and activities. Some other effects of soil erosion include:
Loss of biodiversity, like fish and insects
Damage to roads, footpaths, and entryways
Changes in essential reservoirs
Over enrichment of local water bodies (this leads to algae blooms)
Contaminated drinking water
Silted or blocked waterways
Global Soil Partnership’s Five Pillars of Action
The Global Soil Partnership (GSP) was set up in 2012 to bring soil health and sustainability into the public eye. The organization created Five Pillars of Action to reduce soil erosion and improve soil-related policies in world governments. The GSP’s Five Pillars include:
Advancing environmentally-friendly soil management techniques
Promoting policy, awareness, and investment in soil
Encouraging soil research
Improving the quality of soil data
Co-ordinating methodology, measurements, and indicators for sustainable soil management
What To Do About Soil Erosion
You can do several things about soil erosion, such as planting vegetation, encouraging earthworms, and using no-till or low-till agricultural techniques to grow crops.
Plant and tree roots anchor the soil and reduce soil erosion. Vegetation also provides more shelter for the ground and attracts microorganisms like bacteria that improve soil health and biodiversity. Plant-based structures like hedges also reduce wind erosion.
If you want to keep your soil in place, microorganisms will help. Creatures like earthworms help prevent soil erosion by increasing water absorption and improving soil biodiversity. Fungi and bacteria also help.
A set of soil-friendly agricultural techniques were developed to help prevent soil erosion. Conservation Agriculture has three main principles:
No or low tillage: Tillage is the process of agitating soil before crops are planted. It contributes to soil erosion by moving and degrading the soil. Alternatives to tillage include direct seeding or seeding into the residue of a cover crop.
Cover crops: Planting cover crops keeps the soil sheltered and anchored between seasons of the crop you usually grow. Cover crops give you excellent protection against wind, water, and weather.
Biodiversity: Conservation Agriculture recommends switching out your crops regularly to improve the biodiversity of your soil.
A vegetated concrete mat helps protect the soil and adds vegetation to the area. It’s an excellent way to protect your soil, and works in many different situations.
Earthworms and Soil Erosion
Microorganisms like earthworms are excellent for preventing soil erosion and improving soil health. Earthworms gently till the soil, allowing plants to put down roots deeper into the ground. Mechanical tillage is destructive and causes erosion, but the process of aerating the soil is beneficial. Therefore, introducing earthworms to your soil gives you all the benefits of tillage, without the harmful aspects.
Worms are also excellent for water percolation, decreasing runoff. Water is generally bad if you’re looking to prevent erosion, and runoff is no different. The optimum conditions for your soil include plenty of water percolation, with plenty of plants to take that water in. Earthworms make more channels in the soil, which are perfect for water to flow through and plants to grow in.
With over 6000 species of earthworms to choose from, it isn’t easy to know which ones are best for your soil. However, there are three main groups of earthworms, each requiring different conditions, such as:
Litter dwellers: These worm species live amongst leaf litter and other natural debris and don’t burrow into the soil. They won’t help your crops, but they are excellent for breaking down compost.
Topsoil dwellers: Found in the top 5 - 7 cm (2 - 3 inches), topsoil dwellers help improve water percolation, plant growth, and fertilization. Otherwise known as endogeic earthworms, the topsoil dwelling group includes species such as the Common Earthworm, the Rosy-Tipped Earthworm, and the Green Worm.
Subsoil dwellers: known as epigeic, the subsoil dwellers burrow deeper into the soil than the topsoil dwellers and burrow 1.5 - 1.8 m (5 - 6 feet) into the ground.
The best earthworms for preventing soil erosion are topsoil dwellers, as it’s the topsoil that gets eroded the most.
Earthworms eat soil, getting through two tons per acre per year, and leaving ‘castings’ (poop) behind. Earthworm poop has around eight times the nutrients the earth had before. The nutrients also become much easier for plants to access and digest.
With all the benefits that earthworms can bring to your soil, it’s well worth encouraging them to visit. Some of the things you can do to increase the earthworm population in your soil include:
Stop or reduce the tilling you do
Leave some organic debris on the surface
Add compost or manure to your soil
Stop or minimize chemical fertilization and pesticides
Add organic mulch to lower the soil temperature
When Are Earthworms A Bad Idea?
Forest and woodland habitats depend on leaf litter, as do many species found in these areas. However, earthworms can devour huge amounts of leaf litter in a short space of time, depriving plants and animals of nutrients and habitat.
If leaf litter is left to break down in its own time, the decay process returns nutrients to the soil, feeding more plant growth. However, earthworms can break down the debris too quickly, depriving the entire ecosystem of a fundamental process crucial to its survival.
Another way earthworms could be harmful to your soil is if their burrows increase too much water flow, resulting in flooding and increased soil erosion. This could also cause waterlogged crops.
If you’d prefer to keep worms out of your soil, try freezing your compost for a week, as this will kill worms and worm eggs.
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