We don’t often stop to consider it, but the dirt we walk on daily is a hive of activity and one of the keys to life on planet Earth. A home to vast swarms of microbial life and the nutrients that plants and animals need to grow, whatever you call it, dirt, earth, or soil, is a vital pillar in our ecosystem. In turn, damage to the soil or unchecked erosion can have significant consequences. Our air, water, food supplies, and climate all feel the flow-on effects of soil erosion and its general health and quality. Inevitably, when these negative factors arise, they often impact communities and can lead to notable societal upheavals.

During the 1930s in the US, a famous situation arose, often called the Dust Bowl era, which is still used today as a case study for what can go wrong when soil is mismanaged. During the Dust Bowl, previously fertile land of the Midwest and Southern Plains dried up, giving rise to massive dust storms that could shift millions of tons of soil away in one fell swoop. The period was also marked by several thousand human fatalities attributed to “dust pneumonia”, countless losses in animal life, and damage to agriculture in the region.

Considering that it can take hundreds of years to build up just three centimeters of topsoil, losing so much so quickly was devasting. A positive outcome from the US experience was the rise of soil management bodies tasked with soil practices, who could pinpoint the source problems like overplowing, poor land management, and drought and put effective regulations in place. Similar institutions now exist around the globe.

What is Soil Erosion? 

The dictionary definition of erosion goes something like this: Soil Erosion is the loss of topsoil to wind, rain, and other natural forces; it is often natural but can be intensified by human activity, leading to negative environmental, societal, and economic impacts. It’s important to note that erosion and weathering are different in that weathering does not transport material away where erosion does. In Australia, erosion presents a constant threat, in part due to our extreme weather. For example, heavy wet season rains in Queensland powerfully drive erosion. This action, whether on a large or small scale, inevitably leads to a loss of topsoil, the most fertile layer of our planet. This can be devastating for agricultural producers and the industry at large as the loss of this topsoil results in reduced yields and higher production costs.

Depending on the soil type, once the topsoil is gone, erosion can drive rifts and gullies that make the cultivation of paddocks impossible. The impacts of erosion on farmlands often include:

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  • Reduced ability of soil to store water and hold nutrients
  • Exposure of subsoil, damaging physical and chemical properties
  • Higher rates of runoff, water-shedding, and nutrients vital for crop growth
  • Loss of newly planted crops
  • Deposit of silts in low-lying areas.

About 3 million hectares (2%) of Queensland is used for growing crops. Meanwhile, 80% of the state’s cultivated area is estimated to be vulnerable to soil erosion. Without protection, the impact of soil erosion and topsoil losses can be severe, so much so that some areas of Queensland are now unfit for cropping.

What are the Impacts of Soil Erosion?

Environmental bodies in the US, Australia, and worldwide believe that half of all topsoil losses in the last 50 years have occurred thanks to human activities. While the causes may look the same, i.e. wind and water in their many forms, our effect on the climate also plays a part. 

But where does it all go?

According to the latest research, supported with evidence, around 60% of all eroded topsoil ends up in waterways, polluting rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans with soil and whatever products have been used on them. Agrochemical pollution In the US has led to blue-green algae blooms that affect entire aquatic ecosystems. Back in Queensland, featuring the Great Barrier Reef – a world wonder – just a short distance offshore, the impacts of erosion are felt and published worldwide. As the largest coral reef in the world, the Great Barrier Reef’s water supply is in focus, as water quality flowing from the land into the reef lagoon has deteriorated significantly over the last 150 years.

Major floods – some driven by climate change – have introduced mass pollution levels and eroded soil from river catchments onto the reef. This run-off is considered an existential threat to the reef itself, with high-level 2050 Water Improvement Plans now in place to mitigate the damage and prevent further coral bleaching events. Economic flow-on losses from soil erosion, whether in productivity, tourism, health, or environment, are measured in the tens of billions every year, emphasizing governments for correct and precise controls. 

Controlling Soil Erosion and Summary

As the impacts of climate change intensify, so do the pressures of soil erosion and the associated issues for communities. And while it affects some more directly than others, there is no doubt as to the global nature of the problem. Boiled down, erosion remains a battle between wind and water against the force of gravity. Reducing erosive forces is one plan of action, although incredibly difficult to achieve, while soil stability is another that’s more in our control. This soil-based focus aims to stop coarse and fine sediment from eroding, preventing unpredictable and undesirable soil movement over miles or millimeters.  

While product solutions are a viable option to keep projects and operations rolling, we must tackle the climactic and human-driven elements of erosion at a policy and regulation level. Back on the ground, approaches like planting vegetation, building organic soil matter, and using cover crops and soil matting are also practical. In Queensland, great strides have been made over the last 75 years in erosion mitigation, relying on three principles:

  • Use land according to its capability
  • Protect the soil surface with some form of cover
  • Control runoff before it develops into an erosive force.

With the knowledge of its causes, effects, and controls, we can aim to reduce the impact of soil erosion for future generations. 


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