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The significant effects of soil erosion on the environment

Resources Soil erosion is a naturally occurring process that affects all landforms. In agriculture, soil erosion refers to the wearing away of a field's topsoil by the natural physical forces of water Figure 1 and wind Figure 2 or through forces associated with farming activities such as tillage. Topsoil, which is high in organic matter, fertility and soil life, is relocated elsewhere "on-site" where it builds up over time or is carried "off-site" where it fills in drainage channels.

Soil erosion reduces cropland productivity and contributes to the pollution of adjacent watercourses, wetlands and lakes. Soil erosion can be a slow process that continues relatively unnoticed or can occur at an alarming rate, causing serious loss of topsoil.

Soil compaction, low organic matter, loss of soil structure, poor internal drainage, salinisation and soil acidity problems are other serious soil degradation conditions that can accelerate the soil erosion process. This Factsheet looks at the causes and effects of water, wind and tillage erosion on agricultural land. The erosive force of water from concentrated surface water runoff. Water Erosion The widespread occurrence of water erosion combined with the severity of on-site and off-site impacts have made water erosion the focus of soil conservation efforts in Ontario.

The rate and magnitude of soil erosion by water is controlled by the following factors: Rainfall and Runoff The greater the intensity and duration of a rainstorm, the higher the erosion potential.

The impact of raindrops on the soil surface can break down soil aggregates and disperse the aggregate material. Lighter aggregate materials such as very fine sand, silt, clay and organic matter are easily removed by the raindrop splash and runoff water; greater raindrop energy or runoff amounts are the significant effects of soil erosion on the environment to move larger sand and gravel particles.

Soil movement by rainfall raindrop splash is usually greatest and most noticeable during short-duration, high-intensity thunderstorms. Although the erosion caused by long-lasting and less-intense storms is not usually as spectacular or noticeable as that produced during thunderstorms, the amount of soil loss can be significant, especially when compounded over time. The erosive force of wind on an open field. Surface water runoff occurs whenever there is excess water on a slope that cannot be absorbed into the soil or is trapped on the surface.

Reduced infiltration due to soil compaction, crusting or freezing increases the runoff. Runoff from agricultural land is greatest during spring months when the soils are typically saturated, snow is melting and vegetative cover is minimal.

Soil Erodibility Soil erodibility is an estimate of the ability of soils to resist erosion, based on the physical characteristics of each soil. Texture is the principal characteristic affecting erodibility, but structure, organic matter and permeability also contribute.

Generally, soils with faster infiltration rates, higher levels of organic matter and improved soil structure have a greater resistance to erosion. Sand, sandy loam and loam-textured soils tend to be less erodible than silt, very fine sand and certain clay-textured soils. Tillage and cropping practices that reduce soil organic matter levels, cause poor soil structure, or result in soil compaction, contribute to increases in soil erodibility.

As an example, compacted subsurface soil layers can decrease infiltration and increase runoff. The formation of a soil crust, which tends to "seal" the surface, also decreases infiltration.

On some sites, a soil crust might decrease the amount of soil loss from raindrop impact and splash; however, a corresponding increase in the amount of runoff water can contribute to more serious erosion problems. Past erosion also has an effect on a soil's erodibility. Many exposed subsurface soils on eroded sites tend to be more erodible than the original soils were because of their poorer structure and lower organic matter.

The lower nutrient levels often associated with subsoils contribute to lower crop yields and generally poorer crop cover, which in turn provides less crop protection for the soil. Slope Gradient and Length The steeper and longer the slope of a field, the higher the risk for erosion.

Effects of Soil Erosion

Soil erosion by water increases as the slope length increases due to the greater accumulation of runoff. Consolidation of small fields into larger ones often results in longer slope lengths with increased erosion potential, due to increased velocity of water, which permits a greater degree of scouring carrying capacity for sediment. Plant and residue cover protects the soil from raindrop impact and splash, tends to slow down the movement of runoff water and allows excess surface water to infiltrate.

Vegetation and residue combinations that completely cover the soil and intercept all falling raindrops at and close to the surface are the most efficient in controlling soil erosion e. Partially incorporated residues and residual roots are also important as these provide channels that allow surface water to move into the soil.

The effectiveness of any protective cover also depends on how much protection is available at various periods during the year, relative to the amount of erosive rainfall that falls during these periods. Crops that provide a full protective cover for a major portion of the year e. Crop management systems that favour contour farming and strip-cropping techniques can further reduce the amount of erosion.

  1. Runoff increases when soil is crusty, compacted, or is over hydrated, as in it can't absorb any more water.
  2. However, ridges left from tillage can dry out more quickly in a wind event, resulting in more loose, dry soil available to blow. Gully erosion results in significant amounts of land being taken out of production and creates hazardous conditions for the operators of farm machinery.
  3. Agriculture, development and other human activities can exacerbate this natural effect, vastly increasing the rate at which soil erodes.
  4. Slope Gradient and Length The steeper and longer the slope of a field, the higher the risk for erosion.
  5. Soil erosion is caused by some factors.

Tillage Practices The potential for soil erosion by water is affected by tillage operations, depending on the depth, direction and timing of plowing, the type of tillage equipment and the number of passes. Generally, the less the disturbance of vegetation or residue cover at or near the surface, the more effective the tillage practice in reducing water erosion.

Minimum till or no-till practices are effective in reducing soil erosion by water. Tillage and other practices performed up and down field slopes creates pathways for surface water runoff and can accelerate the soil erosion process. Cross-slope cultivation and contour farming techniques discourage the concentration of surface water runoff and limit soil movement. Forms of Water Erosion Sheet Erosion Sheet erosion is the movement of soil from raindrop splash and runoff water.

It typically occurs evenly over a uniform slope and goes unnoticed until most of the productive topsoil has been lost. Lighter-coloured soils on knolls, changes in soil horizon thickness and low crop yields on shoulder slopes and knolls are other indicators.

The accumulation of soil and crop debris at the lower end of this field is an indicator of sheet erosion. Rill Erosion Rill erosion results when surface water runoff concentrates, forming small yet well-defined channels Figure 4. These distinct channels where the soil has been washed away are called rills when they are small enough to not interfere with field machinery operations.

In many cases, rills are filled in each year as part of tillage operations.

The distinct path where the soil has been washed away by surface water runoff is an indicator of rill erosion. Gully Erosion Gully erosion is an advanced stage of rill erosion where surface channels are eroded to the point where they become a nuisance factor in normal tillage operations Figure 5.

There are farms in Ontario that are losing large quantities of topsoil and subsoil each year due to gully erosion. Surface water runoff, causing gully formation or the enlarging of existing gullies, is usually the result of improper outlet design for local surface and subsurface drainage systems.

The soil instability of gully banks, usually associated with seepage of groundwater, leads to sloughing and slumping caving-in of bank slopes.

Effects of Soil Erosion on the Ecosystem

Such failures usually occur during spring months when the soil water conditions are most conducive to the problem. Gully formations are difficult to control if corrective measures are not designed and properly constructed. Control measures must consider the cause of the increased flow of water across the landscape and be capable of directing the runoff to a proper outlet. Gully erosion results in significant amounts of land being taken out of production and creates hazardous conditions for the operators of farm machinery.

Gully erosion may develop in locations where rill erosion has not been managed. Bank Erosion Natural streams and constructed drainage channels act as outlets for surface water runoff and subsurface drainage systems. Bank erosion is the progressive undercutting, scouring and slumping of these drainageways Figure 6. Poor construction practices, inadequate maintenance, uncontrolled livestock access and cropping too close can all lead to bank erosion problems.

Bank erosion involves the undercutting and scouring of natural stream and drainage channel banks. Poorly constructed tile outlets also contribute to bank erosion.

  • In severe cases, even crops that produce a lot of residue may not protect the soil;
  • Gully erosion may develop in locations where rill erosion has not been managed;
  • This results in a smoother surface susceptible to the wind;
  • Larger-sized soil particles that are too large to be lifted off the ground are dislodged by the wind and roll along the soil surface surface creep.

Some do not function properly because they have no rigid outlet pipe, have an inadequate splash pad or no splash pad at all, or have outlet pipes that have been damaged by erosion, machinery the significant effects of soil erosion on the environment bank cave-ins. The direct damages from bank erosion include loss of productive farmland, undermining of structures such as bridges, increased need to clean out and maintain drainage channels and washing out of lanes, roads and fence rows.

Effects of Water Erosion On-Site The implications of soil erosion by water extend beyond the removal of valuable topsoil. Crop emergence, growth and yield are directly affected by the loss of natural nutrients and applied fertilizers.

Seeds and plants can be disturbed or completely removed by the erosion. Organic matter from the soil, residues and any applied manure, is relatively lightweight and can be readily transported off the field, particularly during spring thaw conditions. Pesticides may also be carried off the site with the eroded soil. Soil quality, structure, stability and texture can be affected by the loss of soil.

The breakdown of aggregates and the removal of smaller particles or entire layers of soil or organic matter can weaken the structure and even change the texture. Textural changes can in turn affect the water-holding capacity of the soil, making it more susceptible to extreme conditions such as drought. Off-Site The off-site impacts of soil erosion by water are not always as apparent as the on-site effects.

Eroded soil, deposited down slope, inhibits or delays the emergence of seeds, buries small seedlings and necessitates replanting in the affected areas. Also, sediment can accumulate on down-slope properties and contribute to road damage.

Sediment that reaches streams or watercourses can accelerate bank erosion, obstruct stream and drainage channels, fill in reservoirs, damage fish habitat and degrade downstream water quality. Pesticides and fertilizers, frequently transported along with the eroding soil, contaminate or pollute downstream water sources, wetlands and lakes. Because of the potential seriousness of some of the off-site impacts, the control of "non-point" pollution from agricultural land is an important consideration.

Under the right conditions it can cause major losses of soil and property Figure 7. Wind erosion can be severe on long, unsheltered, smooth soil surfaces.

The rate and magnitude of soil erosion by wind is controlled by the following the significant effects of soil erosion on the environment Soil Erodibility Very fine soil particles are carried high into the air by the wind and transported great distances suspension. Fine-to-medium size soil particles are lifted a short distance into the air and drop back to the soil surface, damaging crops and dislodging more soil saltation. Larger-sized soil particles that are too large to be lifted off the ground are dislodged by the wind and roll along the soil surface surface creep.

The abrasion that results from windblown particles breaks down stable surface aggregates and further increases the soil erodibility. Soil Surface Roughness Soil surfaces that are not rough offer little resistance to the wind. However, ridges left from tillage can dry out more quickly in a wind event, resulting in more loose, dry soil available to blow.

Over time, soil surfaces become filled in, and the roughness is broken down by abrasion. This results in a smoother surface susceptible to the wind. Excess tillage can contribute to soil structure breakdown and increased erosion. Climate The speed and duration of the wind have a direct relationship to the extent of soil erosion.

Soil moisture levels are very low at the surface of excessively drained soils or during periods of drought, thus releasing the particles for transport by wind. This effect also occurs in freeze-drying of the soil surface during winter months.

Accumulation of soil on the leeward side of barriers such as fence rows, trees or buildings, or snow cover that has a brown colour during winter are indicators of wind erosion.

Unsheltered Distance A lack of windbreaks trees, shrubs, crop residue, etc.

  1. It typically occurs evenly over a uniform slope and goes unnoticed until most of the productive topsoil has been lost.
  2. It is also a major environmental threat to the sustainability and productive capacity of agriculture. Texture is the principal characteristic affecting erodibility, but structure, organic matter and permeability also contribute.
  3. This is important, as wind erosion can do as little as damage your crop or as much as destroy the soil completely.