How Does Erosion Impact the Environment?

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You have probably heard about erosion at least once or twice in your life. It’s usually mentioned during environmental discussions. But what does erosion mean, and why should we care about it? Read on to learn more about this environmental issue. 

What Does Erosion Mean?

Erosion is the removal of the earth’s topsoil and its displacement to a different location by natural elements or forces and human activities. The earth loses 24 billion tons of its fertile topsoil due to erosion annually. That is equivalent to 3.4 tons for each human being. So, it’s essential to understand what forces facilitate erosion, its effect on the environment and the erosion control techniques you can implement to solve the issue.

Different Forces of Erosion

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Water, ice, and wind erosion contribute to the degradation of the earth’s surface. In addition, human activities, including construction, deforestation and agriculture, also facilitate erosion. Let’s learn how each of these forces destroys the earth’s topsoil and how to address the problem.

1. Water Erosion

Water erosion is when the earth loses some of its surface materials due to water flowing on it. It may take place quickly or slowly over many years. Sometimes, what people do may accelerate the loss of fertile topsoil.

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The water that causes erosion may come from irrigation systems, rain, melting snow, and water runoff from rain or melting snow. Also, large bodies of flowing water may cause erosion on their banks. Hillsides are also prone to erosion because slopes make it easier for soils to move downwards with the help of gravity.

When water erosion occurs, you will notice that some of the surfaces lose a sheet of soil, or the water in the vicinity becomes muddier. In addition, the affected areas may experience flooding or sedimentation. You may also notice the formation of gullies and small craters.

2. Wind Erosion

Wind erosion is the removal and transportation of soil and rock particles from one place to another by the wind. In arid and semi-arid regions, this is more common. And you can tell that wind erosion is happening when the air is dusty. That usually happens when there are strong winds, which tend to appear during thunderstorms and cyclones.

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How fast wind erosion destroys the soil depends on the wind’s speed, existing soil conditions and the vegetation cover protecting the ground. Also, the existing soil conditions influence the rate of degradation. The looser the soil particles, the more likely it is soil erosion will occur. That’s why dust storms are a thing. They are an indication that the surrounding lands are degraded.

3. Glacial Erosion

Glacial erosion involves the eroding of the top layer of the earth’s surface by glaciers, especially when they flow down slopes. The surface materials are then transported elsewhere by flowing ice, changing the landscape.

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4. Human Activities

Any human activity that disturbs the earth’s surface and makes it more likely for the soil to be moved by natural elements contributes to erosion. For example, deforestation is the unsustainable cutting and burning of trees. The lack of trees makes it easier for soil to be carried away by wind and water because there are no roots to help hold it together tightly and no barrier to reduce wind speeds.

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Construction and mining also involve the deliberate removal of the topsoil, which is then transported elsewhere, increasing the speed of erosion.  There are many ways construction companies can work to reduce their impacts, and there are even federal regulations and laws for this issue.  Current mining practices also work to mitigate these effects, but historically mines were big contributors to soil erosion. 

Human agricultural activities such as plowing remove the existing vegetation and disturb the topsoil, making it easy to erode. In addition, farm animals can destroy the topsoil layer by overfeeding on the vegetation and loosening the soil particles. And when humans irrigate their gardens and farms, they may use excessive force that displaces the soil.

Effects of Erosion on the Environment

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No list of facts about erosion would be complete without discussing its effects on the environment. Below are some of them.

  • Dust storms cause health issues, such as respiratory illnesses, in humans and animals.
  • Degraded land loses its ability to support many plants. At some point, food crop production may fail completely.
  • Pollution may occur in water bodies due to the transfer of pesticides and herbicides, making it harder for water life to thrive.
  • Low food production due to soil erosion can contribute to global hunger.
  • When soils support fewer plants, it also reduces the absorption of carbon dioxide,  and that contributes to adverse climatic changes.
  • Sedimentation due to erosion may clog up waterways due to silt deposits in the areas at the bottoms of the slopes. This makes it harder for fish to thrive.
  • Sedimentation may cause or worsen flooding due to poor water flow, which may lead to the destruction of property and the death of people and animals.

Strategies for Mitigating Soil Erosion

Westport, MA USA – April 23, 2022: A vacation house sits on a bluff above the beach in an area of coastal erosion. Strong wave action, and coastal flooding has carried away rocks, soils and sands. Photo Courtesy: John Penney/iStock
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It’s important to learn the ways of dealing with soil erosion when it occurs, but even more helpful is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Below are some strategies to deal with soil erosion.

1. Hillside Erosion Control

Since hillsides are particularly vulnerable to soil erosion, farmers can make terraces across the slopes to reduce the water runoff strength and downward soil displacement. Homeowners can plant ground cover plants to hold the soil and build retaining walls to prevent mass soil displacement. In addition, they can opt for hydroseeding instead of regular grass seeding to counter runoff and sedimentation.

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2. Silt Fence Erosion Control

During construction projects, contractors often install a silt fence made of fabric material to prevent sedimentation in waterways and water bodies due to soil disturbance.

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3. Waterbody Erosion Control

Plant aquatic vegetation, such as mangroves and bamboo, to hold the soils by the banks. Also, install brush matting, which includes cut pieces of branches supported by stakes and anchored by the banks of water bodies. It slows the water and protects the soil.

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4. Afforestation and Reforestation

Afforestation and reforestation can help mitigate soil erosion. So, plant or replant trees in large quantities to hold the soil together, act as wind barriers and reduce the strength of water runoff.

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5. Innovative Farming Methods

Agroforestry, which is the planting of trees alongside growing food crops, and keeping animals, can help improve soil stability. Farmers can also adopt mulching, planting of cover crops and minimal tillage methods.

Erosion is a serious issue that everyone needs to address because it affects all communities. Therefore, it is wise to understand the forces facilitating it in your area and then select the best way of dealing with it. Plenty of affordable mitigation strategies exist.

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