Unlocking the potential of measured data to solve research priorities in soil erosion

We compiled and harmonised data from a large number of institutions in Europe to increase the public availability of measured small to medium catchment data to the research community
Published in Earth & Environment

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The issue of soil erosion is climbing up the political agendas across the globe as attention turns to giving soils the same levels of protection as air and water. New priorities centre on soil health as both a problem and a solution: poor soil health has negative impacts on its capacity to produce food, store water, and lock in carbon; while reversing negative trends can offset a proportion of current carbon emissions and provide a variety of valuable ecosystem services. In the European Union, mitigating soil loss is critical within the soil health nexus, with the Soil Monitoring Law legislating for sustainable rates of soil loss as a prerequisite to reverse the current status of 70% of soils being classified as unhealthy. Erosion by water, wind and mechanical tillage uproot soils, undermining both their quantity and quality. A portion of this eroded sediment then moves through pathways in the landscape to enter river and other water bodies, along its journey binding and releasing nutrients, pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and microplastics, giving rise to an array of water quality and pollution issues.

To understand the fundamentals of soil erosion and sediment transport, scientists often rely on field plots and small monitored catchments with instrumental set-ups, which act as ‘natural laboratories’ in the landscape. The data collected from these campaigns has high scientific value for many fundamental and applied research questions. Given that we can’t measure everywhere, these data are often used to build mathematical models to predict erosion in unmonitored areas. Scientists have the opportunity to understand the landscape at its different spatial scales, and learn how changes in land use and management as well as disturbances (e.g. wildfires) impact what enters our river systems.

In this work, we sought to overcome the scattered nature of these datasets and unite measured data from monitored catchment sites across European institutions into a single data repository. The accompanying open-access dataset (EUSEDcollab) is the result of the beginnings of a community effort to increase the availability of measurement data and encourage future scientific advancements.

Where the priorities lie

The reliance of our society on the longevity of soils means that high soil erosion rates cannot be a necessary evil, but a societal challenge to solve in the future. The tightly-bound relationship between soil erosion and political priorities has been evident since the dust bowl incidents of the 1930s in the US, prompting Roosevelt to declare: ”The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”. This realisation at the highest levels of government gave rise to a large body of research seeking to understand the key factors causing soil loss, and also to define how much soil loss can be tolerated.

The present-day ecological and climate crises involve a web of complexities and interconnections. Since erosion is a primary process moving material around the landscape, it sits into this web as a central component. Modern research priorities seek to understand and quantify this, asking questions such as: 1) What role does erosion play in the Earth’s carbon and nutrient cycles, and how can these processes be added to help us to understand future climate change? 2) How does erosion change through time and space, and how can it be mitigated to achieve zero net land degradation? 3) How effective are the current and future soil and water conservation measures that we apply? and 4) How do the impacts of erosion interact with society, and what are the economic costs of action vs no action? The list goes on… however, fundamental to many of these big questions are reliable and validated predictions of the processes involved.

Why a community-wide initiative is key

The multiple components of the EU Soil Observatory aimed at supporting policymaking with the relevant scientific information. These aspects include: 1) providing the soil knowledge and data flows needed to safeguard soils, 2) supporting EU Research & Innovation on soils, and 3) raising societal awareness of the value of soils.

At the heart of many advancements in hydrology and soil erosion science are measurements and observations from monitored catchment sites. Unlike in the U.S., where federal programs (e.g. The USDA-ARS Experimental Watershed Network) have centralised the monitoring and data collection efforts, in Europe the data is dispersed between institutions or national agencies. Instead here, we brought the community together and united over 30 institutions with responsibilities for instrumental measurements and management. Through the working group on soil erosion within the EU Soil Observatory (EUSO), this project aimed to overcome data isolation by a participatory approach with many motivated scientists. Most importantly, when creating a standardised dataset, this brings the people with the most knowledge together with each dataset.

A story behind every work

The data in EUSEDcollab already has a large number of evidenced applications, with over 40 scientific publications, which back up each dataset with descriptions and evidenced applications. Yet, behind monitoring each campaign are stories of motivation and labour to set-up and maintain instruments. We leave you with two:

The Macieira catchment, in northwestern Portugal, was instrumented in 2010 as part of a project exploring the potential impacts of climate change on soil erosion in terraced croplands. The objective was to provide calibration data for numerical models. However, a wildfire burnt around 10% of the catchment in the summer of 2011; and a section of the burnt area was plowed and replanted with a natural oak forest. Since it is uncommon to have erosion data before and after a fire, the project objectives where adjusted to take advantage of this unique opportunity. The catchment was monitored for 3 years after the fire, until 2014. Here, we learned that (i) erosion rates in burnt areas can be quite large, even if the year after the fire is dry; (ii) replanting operations can lead to significantly higher erosion rates than the fire alone; (iii) the eroded sediments can accumulate slowly in the steam bed, but be quickly re-mobilized after a large rainfall event, creating potential problems of water quality contamination downstream; and (iv) even in the long term, erosion in forest soils exposed to recurring wildfires in this region is probably higher than in croplands, making them a priority for soil conservation. – Joao Pedro Nunes, Wageningen University & Lisbon University

In the center of Belgium, the Kinderveld and Ganspoel catchments were selected in 1995 for a project to understand how natural and human-influenced characteristics of the landscape impact erosion, sedimentation, and sediment and phosphorus export. Both catchments, in the Flemish loam belt, are highly prone to erosion because of loamy soils and intense agricultural land use. To investigate, the catchments were measured over 4 years to grasp how soil is eroded and deposited in the landscape, and how is it delivered to the stream channel. Through many visits to the catchments, the fields at both sites were monitored to understand how soil cover (with crops or crop residues) and soil crusting influence erosion and sediment transport. The results showed that variations in the sediment concentration in the river network is controlled by the catchment condition at the time, and what processes were occurring; the main factor being the formation and enlargement of a drainage network of ephemeral gullies which connect eroding fields to the river network. This was strongly influenced by the level at which soils were protected by vegetation, and if surface crusts developed on the soil, emphasising how important good management practices are for limiting erosion and sediment delivery to rivers. Because crop type, crop cover and soil surface characteristics are dynamical, these measurements helped to untangle a complex story of how eroded soils ends up in rivers, which varies at different time scales, from within-event, to between events, seasons and years. – An Steegen, KU Leuven

How to contribute

Contributions of measured data from European monitoring sites are welcomed. For full instructions see our dedicated page on the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC) website (https://esdac.jrc.ec.europa.eu/themes/european-sediments-collaboration-eusedcollab-network). 

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