The soil represents the surface layer, of the earth's crust.
At the beginning of a soil formation, only the bare rock outcrops. It is gradually colonized by pioneer species (lichens and mosses), then herbaceous vegetation, shrubs and finally forest. In parallel a first humus-bearing horizon is formed (the A horizon), followed by some mineral horizons (B horizons). Each successive stage is characterized by a certain association of soil/vegetation and environment, which defines an ecosystem.
After a certain time of parallel evolution between the ground and the vegetation, a state of steady balance is reached; this stage of development is called climax by some ecologists and "natural potential" by others. Succession is the evolution towards climax. Regardless of its name, the equilibrium stage of primary succession is the highest natural form of development that the environmental factors are capable of producing.
The cycles of evolution of soils have very variable durations, between a thousand-year-old for soils of quick evolution (A horizon only) to more than a million of years for soils of slow development. The same soil may achieve several successive steady state conditions during its existence, as exhibited by the Pygmy forest sequence in Mendocino County, California. Soils naturally reach a state of high productivity from which they naturally degrade as mineral nutrients are removed from the soil system. Thus older soils are more vulnerable to the effects of induced retrogression and degradation.
There are two types of ecological factors influencing the evolution of a soil (through alteration and humification). These two factors are extremely significant to explain the evolution of soils of short development.
The destruction of the vegetation implies the destruction of evoluted soils, or a regressive evolution. Cycles of succession-regression of soils follow one another within short intervals of time (human actions) or long intervals of time (climate variations).
The climate role in the deterioration of the rocks and the formation of soils lead to the formulation of the theory of the biorhexistasy.
When the state of balance, characterized by the ecosystem climax is reached, it tends to be maintained stable in the course of time. The vegetation installed on the ground provides the humus and ensures the ascending circulation of the matters. It protects the ground from erosion by playing the role of barrier (for example, protection from water and wind). Plants can also reduce erosion by binding the particles of the ground to their roots.
A disturbance of climax will cause retrogression, but, if given the opportunity, nature will make every effort to restore the damage via secondary succession. Secondary succession is much faster than primary because the soil is already formed, although deteriorated and needing restoration as well.
However, when a significant destruction of the vegetation takes place (of natural origin such as an avalanche or human origin), the disturbance undergone by the ecosystem is too important. In this latter case, erosion is responsible for the destruction of the upper horizons of the ground, and is at the origin of a phenomenon of reversion to pioneer conditions. The phenomenon is called retrogression and can be partial or total (in this case, nothing remains beside bare rock). For example, the clearing of an inclined ground, subjected to violent rains, can lead to the complete destruction of the soil. Man can deeply modify the evolution of the soils by direct and brutal action, such as clearing, abusive cuts, forest pasture, litters raking. The climax vegetation is gradually replaced and the soil modified (example: replacement of leafy tree forests by moors or pines plantations). Retrogression is often related to very old human practices.
Erosion is the main factor for soil degradation and is due to several mechanisms: water erosion, wind erosion, chemical degradation and physical degradation.
Erosion is strongly related to human activity. For example, roads which increase impermeable surfaces lead to streaming and ground loss. Agriculture also accelerates soil erosion (increase of field size, correlated to hedges and ditches removal). Meadows are in regression to the profit of plowed lands. Spring cultures (sunflower, corn, beet) surfaces are increasing and leave the ground naked in winter. Sloping grounds are gradually colonized by vine. Lastly, use of herbicides leaves the ground naked between each crop. New cultural practices, such as mechanization also increases the risks of erosion. Fertilization by mineral manures rather than organic manure gradually destructure the soil. Many scientists observed a gradual decrease of soil organic matter content in soils, as well as a decrease of soil biological activity (in particular, in relation to chemical uses). Lastly, deforestation, in particular, is responsible for degradation of forest soils.
Agriculture increases the risk of erosion through its disturbance of vegetation by way of:
Problems of soil erosion can be fought, and certain practices can lead to soil enhancement and rebuilding. Even though simple, methods for reducing erosion are often not chosen because these practices outweigh the short-term benefits. Rebuilding is especially possible through the improvement of soil structure, addition of organic matter and limitation of runoff. However, these techniques will never totally succeed to restore a soil (and the fauna and flora associated to it) that took more than 1000 years to build up.