Humans erode soil 100 times faster than nature

January 7, 2015, University of Vermont
Floodwaters laden with suspended sediment during the peak discharge of Hurricane Isabel flood on the Potomac River at Great Falls, Virginia, September 2003. Over 160,000 cubic feet per second of runoff, carrying sediment eroded from Piedmont riverbanks and farm fields upstream, submerged the falls. Floods of this magnitude recur about once a decade at Great Falls. New research by scientists at the University of Vermont and Imperial College, London, published in the February 2015 issue of the journal Geology, show that eroded soil, carried in rivers like this one, accelerated dramatically in the wake of European forest-clearing and intensive agriculture in North America. Credit: Paul Bierman, UVM

A new study shows that removing native forest and starting intensive agriculture can accelerate erosion so dramatically that in a few decades as much soil is lost as would naturally occur over thousands of years.

Had you stood on the banks of the Roanoke, Savannah, or Chattahoochee Rivers a hundred years ago, you'd have seen a lot more clay soil washing down to the sea than before European settlers began clearing trees and farming there in the 1700s. Around the world, it is well known that deforestation and agriculture increases above its natural rate.

But accurately measuring the natural rate of erosion for a landscape—and, therefore, how much human land use has accelerated this rate—has been a devilishly hard task for geologists. And that makes environmental decision-making—such as setting allowable amounts of sediment in fish habitat and land use regulation—also difficult.

Now research on these three rivers, and seven other large river basins in the US Southeast, has, for the first time, precisely quantified this background rate of erosion. The scientists made a startling discovery: rates of hillslope erosion before European settlement were about an inch every 2500 years, while during the period of peak land disturbance in the late 1800s and early 1900s, rates spiked to an inch every 25 years.

"That's more than a hundred-fold increase," says Paul Bierman, a geologist at the University of Vermont who co-led the new study with his former graduate student and lead author Luke Reusser, and geologist Dylan Rood at Imperial College, London. "Soils fall apart when we remove vegetation," Bierman says, "and then the land erodes quickly."

Their study was presented online on January 7, 2015, in the February issue of the journal Geology. Their work was supported by the National Science Foundation.

"Our study shows exactly how huge an effect European colonization and agriculture had on the landscape of North America," says Dylan Rood, "humans scraped off the soil more than 100 times faster than other natural processes!"

Along the southern Piedmont from Virginia to Alabama—that stretch of rolling terrain between the Appalachian Mountains and the coastal plain of the Atlantic Ocean—clay soils built up for many millennia. Then, in just a few decades of intensive logging, and cotton and tobacco production, as much soil eroded as would have happened in a pre-human landscape over thousands of years, the scientists note. "The Earth doesn't create that precious soil for crops fast enough to replenish what the humans took off," Rood says. " It's a pattern that is unsustainable if continued."

The scientist collected twenty-four sediment samples from these rivers—and then applied an innovative technique to make their measurements. From quartz in the sediment, Bierman and his team at the University of Vermont's Cosmogenic Nuclide Laboratory extracted a rare form of the element beryllium, an isotope called beryllium-10. Formed by cosmic rays, the isotope builds up in the top few feet of the soil. The slower the rate of erosion, the longer soil is exposed at Earth's surface, the more beryllium-10 it accumulates. Using an accelerator mass spectrometer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the geologists measured how much beryllium-10 was in their samples—giving them a kind of clock to measure erosion over long time spans.

These modern river sediments revealed rates of soil loss over tens of thousands of years. This allowed the team to compare these background rates to post-settlement rates of both upland erosion and downriver sediment yield that have been well documented since the early 1900s across this Piedmont region.

While the scientists concluded that upland erosion was accelerated by a hundred-fold, the amount of sediment at the outlets of these rivers was increased only about five to ten times above pre-settlement levels, meaning that the rivers were only transporting about 6% of the eroded soil. This shows that most of the material eroded over the last two centuries still remains as "legacy sediment," the scientists write, piled up at the base of hillslopes and along valley bottoms.

"There's a huge human thumbprint on the landscape, which makes it hard to see what nature would do on its own," Bierman says, "but the beauty of beryllium-10 is that it allows us to see through the human fingerprint to see what's underneath it, what came before."

"This study help us understand how nature runs the planet," he says, "compared to how we run the planet."

And this knowledge, in turn, can "help to inform land use planning," Bierman says. "We can set regulatory goals based on objective data about how the landscape used to work." Often, it is difficult to know whether conservation strategies—for example, regulations about TMDL's (total maximum daily loads) of sediment—are well fitted to the geology and biology of a region. "In other words, an important unsolved mystery is: "How do the rates of human removal compare to 'natural' rates, and how sustainable are the human rates?" Rood asks.

While this new study shows that erosion rates were unsustainable in the recent past, "it also provides a goal for the future," Rood says. "We can use the beryllium-10 erosion rates as a target for successful resource conservation strategies; they can be used to develop smart environmental policies and regulations that will protect threatened soil and water resources for generations to come."

Explore further: There's something ancient in the icebox

Related Stories

There's something ancient in the icebox

April 17, 2014

Glaciers are commonly thought to work like a belt sander. As they move over the land they scrape off everything—vegetation, soil, and even the top layer of bedrock. So scientists were greatly surprised to discover an ancient ...

Aging Africa

August 29, 2014

In the September issue of GSA Today, Paul Bierman of the University of Vermont–Burlington and colleagues present a cosmogenic view of erosion, relief generation, and the age of faulting in southernmost Africa. By measuring ...

Finding a Secret Map to Erosion (w/ Video)

February 11, 2010

( -- On the northeast coast of New Zealand's North Island, the Waipaoa River drains into the dazzling sea. Upriver, things are not so pretty. More than a century of land clearing for farming has created some of ...

The first true view of global erosion

July 27, 2011

Every mountain and hill shall be made low, declared the ancient prophet Isaiah. In other words: erosion happens. But for the modern geologist a vexing question remains: how fast does this erosion happen?

Salvaging the ecosystem after salvage logging

January 7, 2015

After a forest fire burns a large swath across timberlands, logging companies often are not far behind. They come in to do what is called salvage logging—salvaging the timber that has not been completely destroyed by the ...

Recommended for you

Evidence of earliest life on Earth disputed

October 17, 2018

When Australian scientists presented evidence in 2016 of life on Earth 3.7 billon years ago—pushing the record back 220 million years—it was a big deal, influencing even the search for life on Mars.

Arctic greening thaws permafrost, boosts runoff

October 17, 2018

A new collaborative study has investigated Arctic shrub-snow interactions to obtain a better understanding of the far north's tundra and vast permafrost system. Incorporating extensive in situ observations, Los Alamos National ...

Arctic ice sets speed limit for major ocean current

October 17, 2018

The Beaufort Gyre is an enormous, 600-mile-wide pool of swirling cold, fresh water in the Arctic Ocean, just north of Alaska and Canada. In the winter, this current is covered by a thick cap of ice. Each summer, as the ice ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (5) Jan 07, 2015
Humans erode soil 100 times faster than nature

Humans are as much a part of nature as e-coli.
1.7 / 5 (6) Jan 07, 2015
Humanity is not separate from nature.
1 / 5 (5) Jan 07, 2015
Humanity is not separate from nature.
3 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2015
Agribusiness, with its emphasis on MONEY is killing our land in the US.
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 07, 2015
Unlike lower animals, human can do "unnatural" things to destroy the environment. No other species on earth has the capacity to alter the environment like Homo sapiens. For example, if nuclear war breaks out, our entire country would be devastated -- the nuclear fallout and radiation would make this country unfit for human habitation for centuries to come. Instead of living in harmony with nature, humans have the capacity to take actions that are unhealthy and dangerous. Although we like to think that we can "control" nature and change our environment to suit our whims, oftentimes we fail to see the adverse consequences or results that can follow.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2015
Here is a Biology 101 question: Are you a part of your environment? If you answered "yes", your biology teacher or professor will say that you are wrong. The correct answer is "no". Think about it for awhile. Then, perhaps you can eventually understand why "no" is the correct answer.
1 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2015
gooey much,

you're quite wrong by what you mean 'destroy', animals by their nature eat food. unchecked growth of any wild grazing animal leads to relatively high rates of overgrazing and overgrowth. this can too result in destruction of an environment.

one of the beauties of nature is that for every growth bubble you get a concomitant growth of predatory, parasitic, and fungi(waste degrading) subsystems that serve to check the unlimited and destructive growth.

too many deer or grazers can destroy plants that stablize the banks of rivers and lead to massive erosion. wolves however serve to check this environmental destruction by murdering the dear and eating them. nature finds a balance of destructive forces to create a dynamic play of disharmony and harmony we see in the natural world. too many treehuggers are want to see the natural world as perfectly harmonious. it isn't. that is a fabrication of the modern perspective, trying to make sense of industrialization.
5 / 5 (4) Jan 07, 2015
Teslaberry, I am not sure why you think my use of the word "destroy" is inappropriate, when used in the phrase "destroy the environment". If you really want to get technical about it, then you should know that one of the laws of physics involves the conservation of matter and energy. No one, including myself, is denying the fact that there are dynamic forces at work in our environment that serve to counter or reign-in excesses. Living in harmony with nature does not mean that there is no transformation or recycling of the stuff that makes living on earth possible for humans and other organisms. I think we are in agreement that there are natural constraints that tend to work against the overpopulation of any organism (including humans). For humans, these constraints include disease, starvation, war, and shortages in resources such as land, water, food, and energy.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Jan 08, 2015
Here is a Biology 101 question: Are you a part of your environment? If you answered "yes", your biology teacher or professor will say that you are wrong. The correct answer is "no". Think about it for awhile. Then, perhaps you can eventually understand why "no" is the correct answer.

Gooey, I can see your point. However, the CORRECT answer is - yes AND no....

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.