Have you ever visited the Grand Canyon? That massive hole in the ground is the result of millions of years of erosion — water washing away layer after layer of rock until an enormous canyon formed. This landform is a dramatic example of erosion. On a smaller scale, substances like soil are also susceptible to erosion.
Soil erosion can be problematic. Without nutrient-rich topsoil, we have nowhere to plant our crops, meaning the human race could potentially starve. What causes soil erosion, and what technologies could prevent it?
A Natural Process
Soil erosion is a natural process that’s been happening since the dawn of time. Rainfall erodes loose soil, with small droplets moving lightweight sand and silt particles, and heavy rainfall affecting larger soil particles. Hills are more likely to experience soil erosion because gravity aids the process, pulling loosened sand and soil to lower elevations.
Soil erosion in itself is not a negative process. It can be beneficial, moving seeds to new locations and distributing nutrients and compost more efficiently. However, hose benefits generally only apply in places where humans haven’t interfered with the soil’s natural balance.
Making Erosion Worse
Many of the actions we take every day have consequences that make soil erosion worse. Even essential acts like farming make it easier for rainfall and water to wash away nutrient-rich topsoil. To plant our crops, farmers remove natural vegetation and roots that hold the soil in place. Any area where you remove naturally occurring flora will be more susceptible to soil erosion.
Human developments are destroying animal habitats and natural areas around the globe. Right now, more than 1 million species are on the brink of extinction, and much of this is due to humans taking over their homes. Those habitats are more than just homes for animals — they protect the soil from erosion caused by rainfall. In areas that receive a lot of rain during the year, it can take no time at all to completely change the landscape.
The Consequences of Soil Erosion
What happens when we don’t take steps to reduce or prevent soil erosion wherever possible?
One of the most potentially detrimental consequences of soil erosion is the loss of topsoil and other organic matter necessary for plant growth. Losing the topsoil in a forest might mean it becomes harder for underbrush to take root. That same loss on farmland could mean a farmer is suddenly unable to grow his crops. On a small scale, it becomes difficult for the grower to earn a living, but on a large or global scale, it could lead to food shortages and famine.
Erosion also causes the remaining soil to become compacted. That means it’s more difficult for water to infiltrate the remaining soil particles. While it’s harder to wash compacted soil away, this can lead to flooding in rainy areas because the water can’t drain away into the ground.
Soil erosion can also contribute to water pollution. Soil runoff, especially in agricultural areas, is often contaminated with fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals used in farming. More than 80% of marine pollution comes from land activities. When these chemicals end up in the local water supply, they can encourage toxic algae blooms and cause damage to the aquatic ecosystem.
How to Prevent Soil Erosion
With all of these potential consequences looming over our heads, what can we do to prevent soil erosion? Luckily, soil erosion solutions exist.
Farming and land development are two of the biggest culprits concerning human causes of soil erosion. Adopting new agriculture techniques, including no-till planting, has made a huge difference. In some areas, farmers grow plants by covering them with sheets of plastic, which reduces or eliminates the need for irrigation. It also controls erosion by directing rainfall away from vulnerable areas. This setup also prevents healthy soil from washing away, which would make it more difficult to farm in that area.
Reducing the amount of concrete and asphalt in cities can also prevent the erosion that often accompanies flooding. Concrete and asphalt aren’t porous materials and water can’t drain into them. Instead, the water accumulates and then rushes out of the cities, taking the soil and other contaminants with it.
We don’t even have to go high-tech with our solutions to prevent soil erosion. Sometimes, just bringing back native flora can be enough to prevent soil from washing away. Beaches in Florida accomplish this with native beach grasses that protect the dunes from storms and rain. In other areas, bringing back trees or native plants can be enough.
Soil Erosion Solutions for the Future
If we allow soil erosion to continue unchecked, it will be a massive problem for future generations who will find themselves scrambling for fertile places to plant their crops. We can take a few high- and low-tech steps today that will have far-reaching effects. Erosion is generally a slow process, so by preventing it today, we’re keeping things stable for decades to come.