08.09.2015 |

EU loses 970 million tonnes of soil per year due to water erosion

The EU is losing ground (Photo: Alosh Bennett/

The European Union is losing 970 million tonnes of soil per year due to water erosion, an amount equivalent to a one metre-depth loss of soil from an area the size of the city of Berlin or enough to cover an area twice the size of Belgium with one centimetre of soil. According to a new assessment from the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s in-house science service, an average of 2.46 tonnes per hectare of soil are lost each year across the EU while the average annual rate of soil formation is only 1.4 tonnes per hectare. As it can take up to 100 years to form just one centimetre of new soil, erosion is a major problem with a huge impact on ecosystems, food production, drinking water, carbon stocks and biodiversity. The EU country with the highest annual rate of water erosion was Italy, with 8.46 tonnes of soil per year lost, followed by Slovenia and Austria. These countries are hit hardest due to a combination of high rainfall erosivity and steep topography. The lowest mean annual soil loss rates were found in Finland with 0.06 tonnes per hectare. The JRC estimates that agricultural areas, including arable lands, permanent crops and grasslands, account for 68.3% of total soil losses, while forests account for less than 1%. Agricultural areas have a mean soil loss rate of 3.24 tonnes per hectare. Around 12.7% of arable land in the EU even loses more than 5 tonnes per hectare due water erosion. The authors recommend that policy makers promote anti-erosion measures by financing land management practices such as reduced tillage, the planting of cover crops, keeping plant residues at the soil surface, the maintenance of stone walls, and the increased use of grass margins and contour farming. With respect to the future, the scientists provide an overview of different scenarios. According to some models, the rates of soil loss by water could decrease slightly by 2050, mainly due to growing forest areas. However, an expansion of arable land for food and fuel production could offset these improvements. Other climate change scenarios project that soil loss rates may reach 10 to 15% by 2050 due to an increase of rainfall-induced erosion in Europe. The assessment of water erosion in Europe was published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy. (ab)

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