In today’s changing climate, the effects of soil erosion are prevalent. While forest land, or land that is surrounded by or covered with vegetation, usually sees little effects of soil erosion, cultivated land certainly does. The practice of clearing land for agriculture serves to increase its vulnerability as unprotected land is susceptible to frequent and sustained soil erosion.
Erosion occurs when the land’s soil is not adequately covered in order to protect it from wind, water, and sand. This erosion causes the soil’s health to decline as well as affects surrounding resources such as air and water quality. Heavy flooding or storms can exacerbate the problem or be the cause of erosion in the first place. Overall, erosion can reduce the land’s ability to produce harvests and lead to economic hardship.
Economic Effects of Soil Erosion
In the United States alone, soil erosion accounts for $12 billion in losses. In comparison, Asia and Europe tally $3.5 and $4.5 billion respectively. Several industries are affected by the loss of soil quality or the degradation of crops and their yields.
- Meat and Dairy: Chicken, cattle, and swine are all affected by soil erosion. As the quality of their feed depletes, the quality of meat declines. Animals may be drinking water contaminated by runoff or their feed might not contain enough nutrients.
- Fruits and Vegetables: When crops don’t produce their expected yield, prices go up. Supply and demand still rule the day and if production is reduced or quality degraded, prices may spike for produce that is usable.
- Grains: Since grains are converted into feed for livestock and processed into bread and flour, the degradation of their quality has a trickle-down effect and finds its way into the bread on the dinner table.
Effects of Soil Erosion on the Environment
Rattan Lal, from the School of Natural Resources at The Ohio State University, describes the condition as such: “Soil erosion exacerbates soil degradation and vice versa. In some cases decline in soil quality, especially the weakening of structural units, precedes erosion. In others, erosion may lead to a decline in soil quality and set in motion the degradative trend. In fact, soil erosion can be a manifestation of soil degradation because it involves physical removal of soil in a vertical and/or horizontal direction and degrades soil quality. It is a natural process that has shaped the landscape and led to formations of fertile alluvial and loess soils. However, the acceleration of the process through anthropogenic perturbations can have severe impacts on soil and environmental quality.”
Those impacts include damage to lakes and streams from runoff. As disturbed soil is washed away and deposited elsewhere, natural water resources are inevitably impacted. This erosion wreaks havoc on the land by removing the topsoil and over time, reducing its depth. This depth reduction causes roots to struggle to take hold. Topsoil degradation means soil loses its ability to trap and filter water, diminishing its benefits.
The soil’s fertility is called into question as well as nutrients are washed away. Young plants might not stand a chance from the onslaught of wind and rain and may be lost altogether.
Sediment is a serious impact of soil erosion as the runoff has to go somewhere and turn into something. Nearby roads and neighboring properties might find sediment deposits. Long-term excessive erosion can lead to weakened bridges and other infrastructure. Sediment deposits might also accumulate downstream and cause flood hazards while disrupting fish spawning grounds. Sediment might carry pesticides and fertilizers in its make-up, leaving poisons in its devastating wake.
The economic impacts on environmental shifts caused by erosion are vast in possibility and depend on the affected area’s economic and industrial output.
Effects of Soil Erosion on Agriculture
Although it is difficult to assess agricultural losses because of the unpredictability of climate change and accompanying weather patterns, estimates of economic loss are heavy and impactful. Since tilled soil is more vulnerable than untilled soil, it usually suffers the worst effects of erosion and influences agriculture by lessening the land’s ability to produce crops.
Erosion carries away not just soil but also the nutrients it contains. Studies show that each ton of soil that erodes might contain the equivalent of 2.32 pounds of nitrogen and one pound of phosphorous. When these elements are carried away, they are deposited in places adversely affected by excess nitrogen and phosphorous, not to mention pesticides. Per-acre dollar estimates work out to fertilizer losses at a cost of $2.10 per ton of soil loss.
The impact on agriculture in terms of time is also weighty. Farmers spend crucial growing time preventing erosion or repairing its damage. Eroded areas must be leveled with additional cultivation as well as filling gullies created by runoff. Gradually, topsoil suffers and depth is lost. Seeds and seedlings might also be washed away, adding to crop and economic losses.
Conservation Practices and Erosion Control
There are methods to minimize the damage of soil erosion and possibly prevent it from occurring in the first place. The time to put these into practice is before the next rainy season or the next predicted storm.
- Crop rotation: Alternating crops on the same land can maintain soil productivity.
- Contour farming: Sloped land can be tilled to make elevations more consistent and furrows can be created to serve as reservoirs. Terraced planting has a similar effect as crops are planted in graduated platforms to deter erosion.
- Strip cropping: Alternating crops to be cultivated with strips of sod-forming or matting textiles like coir blankets and logs can also work to minimize erosion.
- Subsoiling: This method works by circulating the soil to increase root aeration and give water a place to go, providing better access to crops that need it for survival.
Lal goes on to say that, “Estimates of the global extent of soil erosion are tentative and subjective, and need to be improved by using remote sensing, GIS and other modern techniques. Developing a credible database is crucial to identifying management strategies. Erosional hot spots of the world … are in need of coordinated efforts at the global scale to restore degraded ecosystems.’
Soil erosion and shifting climates both affect the viability of soil used in necessary, everday industries. With conservation methods and soil stabilization products, erosion can be reduced and prevented, salvaging one of the most important resources.