What is soil erosion?

Soil is naturally removed by the action of water or wind: such 'background' (or 'geological') soil erosion has been occurring for some 450 million years, since the first land plants formed the first soil. Even before this, natural processes moved loose rock, or regolith, off the Earth's surface, just as has happened on the planet Mars.

In general, background erosion removes soil at roughly the same rate as soil is formed. But 'accelerated' soil erosion — loss of soil at a much faster rate than it is formed — is a far more recent problem. It is always a result of mankind's unwise actions, such as overgrazing or unsuitable cultivation practices. These leave the land unprotected and vulnerable. Then, during times of erosive rainfall or windstorms, soil may be detached, transported, and (possibly travelling a long distance) deposited.

Accelerated soil erosion by water or wind may affect both agricultural areas and the natural environment, and is one of the most widespread of today's environmental problems. It has impacts which are both on-site (at the place where the soil is detached) and off-site (wherever the eroded soil ends up).

More recently still, the use of powerful agricultural implements has, in some parts of the world, led to damaging amounts of soil moving downslope merely under the action of gravity: this is so-called tillage erosion

Soil erosion is just one form of soil degradation. Other kinds of soil degradation include salinisation, nutrient loss, and compaction.

Dave Favis-Mortlock, May 2007