Humans cause more soil erosion than rivers, glaciers

ANN ARBOR, Michigan, November 3, 2004 (ENS): Humans are stripping soil from the surface of the Earth far faster than nature can replace it, an analysis by a University of Michigan geologist shows.

Bruce Wilkinson, a University of Michigan professor of geological sciences, says human activity causes 10 times more erosion of continental surfaces than all natural processes combined. Wilkinson will present his findings November 8 at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver, Colorado.

People have been the main cause of worldwide erosion since early in the first millennium, and many researchers have tried to assess the impact of human activity on soil loss, Wilkinson said, but most have only guessed.

Wilkinson used existing data on sedimentary rock distributions and abundances to calculate rates of natural erosion from glaciers and rivers compared with that caused by human activity - mainly agriculture and construction.

"If you ask how fast erosion takes place over geologic time - say over the last 500 million years - on average, you get about 60 feet every million years," Wilkinson said.

But in those parts of the United States where soil is being eroded by human agricultural activity, the rate averages around 1,500 feet per million years, and rates are even higher in other parts of the world.

Natural processes operate over areas larger than those affected by agriculture and construction, but even taking that into account, Wilkinson said, "the bottom line is, we move about 10 times as much sediment as all natural processes put together."

"This situation is particularly critical," Wilkinson said, "because the Earth's human population is growing rapidly and because almost all potentially arable land is now under the plow."

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