Europe loses its fertile soil

Researchers warn that erosion devours more soil than can be newly created

Erosion threatens especially arable land: With the rain much soil is lost. © Wikimedia Commons / Katharina Helming (CC BY-SA 1.0)
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We are losing ground under our feet: erosion is causing 970 million tons of land to be lost every year in Europe - enough to cover one meter in Berlin. According to scientists, especially the open arable land is defenseless against erosion: the soil disappears there much faster than it can regenerate. The researchers therefore strongly recommend more effective protective measures.

"As sure as the ground on which we stand" is a saying that may need to be reconsidered. At the beginning of the year 2015, the Soil Atlas showed that we cultivate and consume more soil than we have available in the long term. Climate change also threatens the soil and could turn large areas into barren land. We rely on fertile ground: we already have to import many foodstuffs to Germany because otherwise we would need twice as much acreage as we actually have.

Loss exceeds new formation

The increasing development and the hotter climate are not the only problems. Wind and rain also tear away important ground year after year. The extent to which this erosion is taking place across the EU has been studied in a model by Panos Panagos scientists from the European Commission's Joint Research Center. They took into account the type of soil and how it is used, how easily the soil can be washed out by rain and whether protective measures against erosion are already available.

The results are alarming: Every year, 970 million tonnes of land are lost across the EU. This corresponds to a ground cover of one meter thickness on the area of ​​Berlin. With a layer thickness of one centimeter, the surface would be twice as large as Belgium. It takes about a hundred years to recreate only one centimeter of soil.

Map of soil erosion due to leaching in the EU © EU, 2015

According to the study, every hectare of EU land loses on average just under 2.5 tonnes of fertile land per year. Worryingly enough, the soil only regenerates at a rate of 1.4 tonnes per year so Europe is slowly losing ground under erosion. display

Farmland is particularly endangered

Compared to other EU states, Germany still has a comparatively positive effect: Every year, the rain drives about 1.25 tons of soil from every hectare of land, which is just below the critical value of new land formation. But this is an average over the entire land area if only the agricultural areas are considered, the value increases to 1.75 tons per hectare.

Because of all these mostly open surfaces are particularly vulnerable to erosion: They contribute more than two-thirds of the soil loss in Europe. Less than one percent of the lost soil, on the other hand, comes from the forests. Nearly a quarter of the EU's land area has lost more than two tonnes per hectare per year. The countries most affected by the study are Italy, Slovenia and Austria. Here are the erosion rates over seven tons, in Italy even over eight tons. The lowest losses are in Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands.

Protective measures are not enough

Protective measures have already eroded the soil erosion in recent years by almost ten percent in the EU, and even 20 percent on cultivation areas. In order to ensure the production of food and drinking water, but also to protect ecosystems and their biodiversity, the protection of the soil has become one of the important environmental goals of the European Commission. But the measures so far do not seem to be enough. Regions with particularly severe erosion should receive greater financial support, the researchers recommend.

For the future, the scientists see various possible scenarios: If one considers the expected land use by 2050, the loss due to erosion could easily be reduced. Responsible for this are growing forest areas that hold the ground. However, this protective effect is not enough: the demand for arable land will probably increase even more until then.

Another scenario is even more dramatic: According to climate models, rain erosion in Europe could increase by ten to fifteen percent by 2050. Then also correspondingly more soil is lost. (Environmental Science & Policy, 2015; doi: 10.1016 / j.envsci.2015.08.012)

(European Commission, Joint Research Center (JRC), 03.09.2015 - AKR)