Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Soil erosion and climate change

The warmer atmospheric temperatures observed over the past decades are expected to lead to a more vigorous hydrological cycle, including more extreme rainfall events. In 1998 Karl and Knight reported that from 1910 to 1996 total precipitation over the contiguous U.S. increased, and that 53% of the increase came from the upper 10% of precipitation events (the most intense precipitation). The percent of precipitation coming from days of precipitation in excess of 50 mm has also increased significantly.

Studies on soil erosion suggest that increased rainfall amounts and intensities will lead to greater rates of erosion. Thus, if rainfall amounts and intensities increase in many parts of the world as expected, erosion will also increase, unless amelioration measures are taken. Soil erosion rates are expected to change in response to changes in climate for a variety of reasons. The most direct is the change in the erosive power of rainfall. Other reasons include: a) changes in plant canopy caused by shifts in plant biomass production associated with moisture regime; b) changes in litter cover on the ground caused by changes in both plant residue decomposition rates driven by temperature and moisture dependent soil microbial activity as well as plant biomass production rates; c) changes in soil moisture due to shifting precipitation regimes and evapo-transpiration rates, which changes infiltration and runoff ratios; d) soil erodibility changes due to decrease in soil organic matter concentrations in soils that lead to a soil structure that is more susceptible to erosion and increased runoff due to increased soil surface sealing and crusting; e) a shift of winter precipitation from non-erosive snow to erosive rainfall due to increasing winter temperatures; f) melting of permafrost, which induces an erodible soil state from a previously non-erodible one; and g) shifts in land use made necessary to accommodate new climatic regimes.

Studies by Pruski and Nearing indicated that, other factors such as land use not considered, we can expect approximately a 1.7% change in soil erosion for each 1% change in total precipitation under climate change.

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