Erosion is the process by which soil and rock are removed from the Earth's surface by exogenetic processes such as wind or water flow, and thentransported and deposited in other locations.
While erosion is a natural process, human activities have increased by 10-40 times the rate at which erosion is occurring globally. Excessive erosion causes problems such as desertification, decreases in agricultural productivity due to land degradation, sedimentation of waterways, and ecological collapsedue to loss of the nutrient rich upper soil layers. Water and wind erosion are now the two primary causes of land degradation; combined, they are responsible for 84% of degraded acreage, making excessive erosion one of the most significant global environmental problems.
Industrial agriculture, deforestation, roads, anthropogenic climate change andurban sprawl are amongst the most significant human activities in regard to their effect on stimulating erosion. However, there are many available alternative land use practices that can curtail or limit erosion, such as terrace-building, no-till agriculture, and revegetation of denuded soils.
There are three primary types of erosion that occur as a direct result of rainfall—sheet erosion, rill erosion, and gully erosion. Sheet erosion is generally seen as the first and least severe stage in the soil erosion process, which is followed by rill erosion, and finally gully erosion (the most severe of the three).
The impact of a falling raindrop creates a small crater in the soil, ejecting soil particles. The distance these soil particles travel can be as much as two feet vertically and five feet horizontally on level ground. Once the rate of rainfall is faster than the rate of infiltration into the soil, surface runoff occurs and carries the loosened soil particles down the slope.
Sheet erosion is the transport of loosened soil particles by overland flow.
Rill erosion refers to the development of small, ephemeral concentrated flow paths which function as both sediment source and sediment delivery systems for erosion on hillslopes. Generally, where water erosion rates on disturbed upland areas are greatest, rills are active. Flow depths in rills are typically on the order of a few centimeters or less and slopes may be quite steep. This means that rills exhibit very different hydraulic physics than water flowing through the deeper, wider channels of streams and rivers.
Gully erosion occurs when runoff water accumulates, and then rapidly flows in narrow channels during or immediately after heavy rains or melting snow, removing soil to a considerable depth.
Valley or stream erosion occurs with continued water flow along a linear feature. The erosion is both downward, deepening the valley, and headward, extending the valley into the hillside. In the earliest stage of stream erosion, the erosive activity is dominantly vertical, the valleys have a typical V cross-section and the stream gradient is relatively steep. When some base level is reached, the erosive activity switches to lateral erosion, which widens the valley floor and creates a narrow floodplain. The stream gradient becomes nearly flat, and lateral deposition of sediments becomes important as the stream meanders across the valley floor. In all stages of stream erosion, by far the most erosion occurs during times of flood, when more and faster-moving water is available to carry a larger sediment load. In such processes, it is not the water alone that erodes: suspended abrasive particles, pebbles and boulders can also act erosively as they traverse a surface, in a process known as traction.
Bank erosion is the wearing away of the banks of a stream or river. This is distinguished from changes on the bed of the watercourse, which is referred to asscour. Erosion and changes in the form of river banks may be measured by inserting metal rods into the bank and marking the position of the bank surface along the rods at different times.
Thermal erosion is the result of melting and weakening permafrost due to moving water. It can occur both along rivers and at the coast. Rapid river channel migration observed in the Lena River of Siberia is due to thermal erosion, as these portions of the banks are composed of permafrost-cemented non-cohesive materials. Much of this erosion occurs as the weakened banks fail in large slumps. Thermal erosion also affects the Arctic coast, where wave action and near-shore temperatures combine to undercut permafrost bluffs along the shoreline and cause them to fail. Annual erosion rates along a 100-kilometer segment of the Beaufort Sea shoreline averaged 5.6 meters per year from 1955 to 2002.