Agri-environmental indicator - soil erosion

Data from May 2015. Most recent data: Further information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: May 2018.

This article provides a fact sheet of the European Union (EU) agri-environmental indicator soil erosion. It consists of an overview of recent data, complemented by all information on definitions, measurement methods and context needed to interpret them correctly. The soil erosion article is part of a set of similar fact sheets providing a complete picture of the state of the agri-environmental indicators in the EU.

Example of soil water erosion on arable land
© Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Map 1: Soil erosion by water (tonnes per ha per year), 2010, EU-28, NUTS 3
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Map 2: Soil erosion by water (tonnes per ha per year), 2010, EU-28, 100 m cell size
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Figure 1: Percentage of the EU territory affected by soil water erosion according to soil erosion rate (tonnes per ha per year), 2010, EU-28
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Figure 2: Soil water erosion rate by country (tonnes per ha per year), 2010, EU-28
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Figure 3: Soil water erosion rates per land cover group and corresponding shares of land cover and soil erosion (tonnes per ha per year, %), 2010, EU-28
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Map 3: Mean soil erosion rates at NUTS 3 level for arable lands (tonnes per ha per year), 2010, EU-28
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Map 4: Estimation of decrease of soil water erosion in the European Union due to the application of Good Agricultural Environmental Conditions (GAEC), 2003-2010, EU-28, NUTS 3
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Figure 4: RUSLE2015 soil erosion model structure
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Map 5: Rainfall erosivity in Europe (R-factor)
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Map 6: Soil erodibility factor in Europe (K-factor)
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Map 7: Topographic factors - slope length and slope steepness (LS-factor)
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Map 8: Cover management factor in Europe (C-factor)
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Map 9: Support conservation practices factor in Europe (P-factor)
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission
Map 10: Soil erosion maps as collected through the EIONET-SOIL network (tonnes per ha per year), 2010, BE, BG, DE, EE, IE, IT, NL, AT, PL, SK and NO
Source: Joint Research Centre, European Commission

The indicator soil erosion estimates the areas affected by a certain rate of soil erosion by water.

Main indicator:

  • Areas with a certain level of erosion (aggregated to NUTS 3 regions)

Supporting indicator:

  • Estimated soil loss by water erosion (tonnes per ha per year)

Main statistical findings

Key messages

  • According to recent studies, approximately 11.4 % of the European Union (EU) territory is estimated to be affected by a moderate to high level soil erosion (more than 5 tonnes per hectare per year). This estimate is slightly lower compared to the previous estimations that 16 % of EU’s land area is affected by soil erosion[1]. This reduced rate is mainly due to the application of management practices against soil erosion which have been applied in Member States during the last decade. About 0.4 % of EU land suffers from extreme erosion (more than 50 tonnes per hectare per year).
  • Around 12.7 % of arable land in EU is estimated to suffer from moderate to high erosion. This equates to an area of 140 373 km² (more than entire surface area of Greece).
  • Mean rates of soil erosion by water in the EU amounted to 2.46 tonnes per hectare per year. The total annual soil loss is estimated to 970 megatonnes.
  • Permanent grassland and pastures occupy around 9.3 % of the erosive lands in EU-28. Around 10 % of those permanent pastures is estimated to suffer from moderate to severe erosion, which equates to around 38 900 km². This demonstrates the importance of maintaining permanent vegetation cover as a mechanism to combat soil erosion.
  • Conservation and management measures (reduced tillage, management of plant residues and winter crops, contouring, stone walls, grass margins) had a significant impact on reducing soil loss (9.5 % on average) in the EU during the last decade.

Assessment

This fact sheet describes the susceptibility of soil to erosion by water across Europe, including current estimated levels and historical trends. The trend information identifies those countries or areas for which an improvement and/or deterioration in soil erosion rate can be observed. It is important to note that both indicators are outputs of a modelling exercise and are estimates rather than measured values.

Erosion can be defined as the wearing away of the land surface by physical forces such as rainfall, flowing water, wind, ice, temperature change, gravity or other natural or anthropogenic agents that abrade, detach and remove soil or geological material from one point on the earth's surface to be deposited elsewhere. When used in the context of pressures on soil, erosion refers to accelerated loss of soil as a result of anthropogenic activity, in excess of accepted rates of natural soil formation[2].

The loss of soil leads to a decline in organic matter and nutrient content, the breakdown of soil structure, a reduction of the available soil water stored, which can lead to an enhanced risk of flooding and landslides in adjacent areas. Nutrient and carbon cycling can be significantly altered by mobilization and deposition of soil[3], as eroded soil may lose 75 - 80 % of its carbon content, with consequent release of carbon to the atmosphere[4]. Soil erosion impacts strongly on the environment and has high economic costs; to mitigate these effects, soil and water conservation strategies are required.

Soil erosion by water is one of the most widespread forms of soil degradation in Europe. Map 1 shows the soil water erosion across all land surfaces in the EU. This map presents the mean level of soil water erosion in administrative areas by NUTS 3 level with a range starting from a very low level (less than 1 tonne per hectare per year) to a level which is considered as high (more than 20 tonnes per hectare per year). Map 2 represents the estimated water erosion in tonnes per hectare per year with a ground resolution of 100 m x 100 m across all land surfaces in the EU. See also: The new assessment of soil loss by water erosion in Europe. Note that patterns and maximum values may differ slightly from Map 1 due to the smoothing effect that results in the calculation of mean values for administrative regions (i.e. in Map 1 low and high values are not visible in individual NUTS 3 polygons).

According to recent study performed in the Joint Research Centre in 2014-15, approximately 11.4 % of the EU territory is estimated to be affected by moderate to high level soil erosion rate (more than 5 tonnes per ha per year) (Figure 1). This estimate is slightly lower compared to the previous estimations that 16 % of EU’s land area is affected by soil erosion[5]. This reduced rate is mainly due to the application of management practices against soil erosion which have been applied during the last decade in the EU. Mean rates of soil erosion by water amounted to 2.46 tonnes per hectare per year. The total annual soil loss in the EU is estimated to 970 megatonnes.

Around 12.7 % of arable land in the EU is estimated to suffer from moderate to high erosion. This equates to an area of 140 373 km² (More than entire surface area of Greece). Using conservative estimates of wheat yields of 3 tonnes per hectare[6] and a market price of EUR 300 per tonne of wheat, in an area of arable land affected by moderate to severe soil erosion, agricultural production in the European Union of EUR 12.633 billion could be under threat. If the economic value is placed on the loss of soil carbon (currently CO2 credits are around EUR 20 per tonne), the figure would be even higher.

Several countries in the southern part of Europe show mean erosion rates that are significantly higher than the mean value for EU (Figure 2). However, countries with low mean erosion rates may contain areas where erosion rates are significantly higher (and of course, vice versa).

The map of soil loss in the European Union (Map 2) was analysed by land cover/use type using the major 2nd level CORINE Land Cover classes (CLC, 2014). The mean rate of soil loss from the arable lands of the EU (2.67 tonnes per hectare per year) is 10 % higher than the overall soil loss rate (2.46 tonnes per hectare per year). Permanent crops have a high mean soil loss rate (9.47 tonnes per hectare per year), as most of the vineyards and olive trees are located in hilly Mediterranean areas with high rainfall erosivity. The mean annual soil loss rate in pastures is 2.02 tonnes per hectare per year, mainly due to higher vegetation densities and, as a consequence, lowers C-factors. The heterogeneous agricultural areas have a higher overall mean rate of soil loss (4.21 tonnes per hectare per year) than do arable land areas, despite the fact that their C-factor is lower. The latter is due to the differences in topography (which influence the LS-factor), as the arable lands are typically located in flat or gently sloping areas. The agricultural areas, including arable lands, permanent crops, grasslands and heterogeneous agriculture lands are covering 46.7 % of the EU surface area (or 52% of the potentially erosion-prone region studied), have a mean soil loss rate of 3.24 t tonnes per hectare per year. These agricultural lands account for 68.3 % of total soil losses (Figure 3). The forests and semi-natural CORINE Land Cover/use classes are very heterogeneous in terms of soil loss estimates. Despite the fact that they occupy more than 30 % of the EU land, forests have by far the lowest rate of soil loss (0.07 tonnes per hectare per year), contributing to less than 1 % of the total soil loss in Europe. Areas covered with shrub and herbaceous vegetation have a mean soil loss rate of 2.69 tonnes per hectare per year. Within this land-cover group, natural grassland areas have a mean soil loss rate of 4.41 tonnes per hectare per year, mainly due to their location on steep areas. Very high soil loss rates (40.16 tonnes per hectare per year) have been estimated for sparsely vegetated areas, which are mainly bad-lands in high attitudes with scattered vegetation. Those sparsely vegetated areas explain the high rates of soil loss in southern Spain. However, this is the most uncertain land-cover group due to the uncertainty of the C-factor and the ambiguity in CORINE Land Cover classification. Mean soil erosion rates at NUTS 3 level for arable lands in the European Union is presented in Map 3.

In the EU, one of the main policy instruments to promote a more environmentally friendly agriculture was introduced by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform in 2003, through the so-called cross-compliance. According to this mechanism, the farmer support payments were conditioned by respecting the environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards. This led to the definition of Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) firstly established by Council Regulation (EC) No 1782/2003 and subsequently Council Regulation (EC) No 73/2009. The prevention of soil erosion and maintenance of soil organic matter were two of GAEC requirements, which each Member State was obliged to address through national/regional standards such as: i) minimal soil cover maintenance; ii) minimum land management reflecting site specific conditions to limit soil loss and iii) maintenance of soil organic matter level through appropriate practices including the ban on burning arable stubbles.The implementation of GAEC in the agricultural lands of Member States has helped to reduce soil loss rates. Since no statistical data were available about reduced tillage, soil cover, plant residues, contour farming, terracing and grass margins before the GAEC implementation in 2003, it was hypothesised that those management practices were previously not applied or were only applied to a very limited extent. GAEC has contributed in reducing the overall soil erosion from 2.71 tonnes per hectare per year to 2.46 tonnes per hectare per year (decrease of 9.5 %). The highest reduction of soil loss due to GAEC implementation was in arable land (mean reduction of 20.2 %). The estimation of decrease of soil water erosion rates across all land surfaces between 2003 and 2010 due to the application of GAEC in EU Member States by NUTS 3 regions is shown in Map 4.

No harmonized measure of soil erosion rates exists for the European continent. To date, the only harmonized pan-European estimates of soil erosion by water have been provided by the PESERA project, by the extrapolation of plot data[7] and by a previous application of e-RUSLE model[8].This fact sheet is based on a methodology to improve on the limitations of the PESERA model[9]), the uncertainties of extrapolating plot data and overcome the problems of e-RUSLE model (coarse resolution, medium quality of input layers, lack of scenarios analysis, etc).  

Increasing awareness amongst scientists and policy-makers about the problem of soil degradation through erosion in Europe has made the quantification of its extent and impact an urgent requirement. The identification of areas that are vulnerable to soil erosion can be helpful for improving our knowledge about the extent of the areas affected and, ultimately, for developing measures to keep the problem under control. Considering the average of soil water erosion rate by country (Figure 2), several European countries (most of them in northern Europe) appear not to be significantly affected by notable soil erosion susceptibility when compared to a ‘continental mean’ of around 2.46 tonnes per hectare per year. Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Malta, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania have average rates higher than the mean European one. However, such values can be misleading as they may mask the fact that erosion rates in many areas can be much higher, even for those countries that have a low mean rate of erosion. The converse is also true for countries with high values. On the other hand, some countries, mainly in the southern part of Europe, are clearly characterised as being particularly susceptible to erosion.

The major sources of some uncertainty for the soil erosion map of Europe are found in some highly erosion-prone CORINE Land Cover classes (e.g. vegetated areas Sparsely vegetated areas – class: 3.3.3) that demonstrate high variability between Mediterranean regions (bad-lands) and Northern Europe (mixed vegetation with rocks). For example some of the areas in Northern Scotland are classified as sparsely vegetated areas while probably those areas are not prone to soil erosion (mixed vegetation with rocks).

There has been much discussion in the literature about thresholds above which soil erosion should be regarded as a serious problem. This has given rise to the concept of ‘tolerable’ rates of soil erosion that should be based on reliable estimates of natural rates of soil formation. However, soil formation processes and rates differ substantially throughout Europe. In some cases, rates of soil erosion larger than 1 tonne per hectare per year are regarded as tolerable from the wider perspective of society as a whole, for example for economic considerations or the preservation of soil functions. In Switzerland, the threshold tolerated for soil erosion is generally 1 tonne per hectare per year, though this rate can be increased to 2 tonnes per hectare per year for some soil types[10]. Most recently, Verheijen et al.[11] estimated the average soil formation rate in Europe to 1.4 tonne per ha per year which is much lower than the soil loss rate. In general, losses above 1 tonne per hectare per year are generally considered as irreversible. Nevertheless, there may be a need to propose different thresholds of rates of soil erosion that are tolerable in different parts of Europe. However, this aspect needs further elaboration.

Data sources and availability

Indicator definition

The indicator soil erosion estimates the areas affected by a certain rate of soil erosion by water.

Measurements

Main indicator:

  • Areas with a certain level of erosion (aggregated to NUTS 3 regions)

Supporting indicator:

  • Estimated soil loss by water erosion (tonnes per hectare per year)

Links with other indicators 

Soil erosion does not serve as an input to other AEI, but has indirect links to the following indicators:

Data used and methodology

Two soil erosion indicators have been produced on the basis of empirical computer model. The main indicator represents estimated soil erosion levels for NUTS Level 3 administrative areas that range from very low values (less than 1 tonne per hectare per year) to high values (more than 20 tonnes per hectare per year) for the EU. The second indicator is a cell-based map that estimates the rate of soil erosion by water in tonnes per hectare per year for cells of 100 m x 100 m for the EU.

The indicators are predicted estimates and not actual values. They are derived from an enhanced version of the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) model [12] which was developed to evaluate soil erosion by water at a regional scale. This advanced version is named RUSLE2015 and is based on high quality and peer reviewed published input layers (soil erodibility, rainfall erosivity, topography, land cover, conservation practices)[13] (Figure 4). Moreover, the most recent and available pan-European datasets have been used to model the input layers. The model structure has been adapted in order to take into account conservation planning, inventory erosion rates and estimate sediment delivery on the basis of accepted scientific knowledge and technical judgment. In this assessment, the basic RUSLE model has been adapted through the improved quality of the input factors.

Compared to past approaches, the RUSLE2015 has the following improvements:

  • Soil erodibility is based on around 20 000 measured soil profile data from LUCAS 2009 topsoil survey;
  • Rainfall erosivity has been estimated after an extensive data collection of high temporal resolution data on rainfall;
  • Cover incorporates the vegetation density and the crop management;
  • Management takes into account the tillage practices, plant residues and cover crops;
  • Topography is calculated with the best ever available Digital Elevation Model (DEM);
  • Support practices have been estimated for the first time at the European scale.


The RUSLE2015 model has been used due to its flexibility in relation to input data requirements. In addition, the best available pan-European databases have been introduced for all input layers:

  • Stoniness effect taking into account the LUCAS topsoil survey;
  • First ever Rainfall Erosivity Database at European Scale (REDES);
  • Copernicus remote sensing datasets on vegetation density;
  • Eurostat statistical data on crops, tillage practices, plant residues and cover crops;
  • Digital Elevation Model (DEM) at 25 m resolution;
  • Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) database;
  • LUCAS 2012 earth observations on stone walls and grass margins.


Only soil erosion resulting from rainsplash, overland flow (also known as sheetwash) and rill formation are considered. These are some of the most effective processes to detach and remove soil by water. In most situations, erosion by concentrated flow (rills and gullies) is the main agent of erosion by water. The data availability of input layers is an important issue for modellers. Readers should be aware that due to the limitations in CORINE Land Cover classification and uncertainty of rainfall erosivity in certain areas, the results provide an estimation of the soil erosion rates. It should also be pointed out that the soil loss rates presented in this indicator are long-term averages and should not be compared with event-based observations, given the large seasonal variability of the rainfall erosivity and cover management (R and C-factors). Concluding, it is better not to take decisions at pixel level (100 meters resolution) where it is recommended to use local measurements.

Validation of modelled data is an issue at the European scale. Due to limited measurement data across Europe, the validation of modelled data is problematic. Measurement of actual soil loss by using long term experimental plots, Caesium-137 measurements and sampling of sediment loads in the runoff is relatively possible only for small catchments. For a continental scale this type of validation is not financially feasible. The RUSLE2015 data have been verified against the soil erosion estimates provided by the Member States in the EIONET data collection exercise (2009-2010)[14]. In the future, the modelled data can be validated with long-term plots depending on the availability of those datasets.

The main factors affecting the rates of soil erosion by water are precipitation, soil type, topography, land use and land management. The most commonly used erosion model is the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) and its revised version (RUSLE)[15] [16] which estimates long-term average annual soil loss by sheet and rill erosion. It should be noted that soil loss caused by (ephemeral) gully erosion is not predicted by RUSLE[17]. RUSLE is still the most frequently used model at large scales[18][19] as it can process data input for large regions, and provides a basis for carrying out scenario analysis and taking measures against erosion[20]. In addition, a recent collection of soil loss data in Europe by the European Environmental Information and Observation Network (EIONET) found that all participating countries used USLE/RUSLE[21] to model soil loss.

The revised version of the RUSLE is an empirical model that calculates soil loss due to sheet and rill erosion. The model considers six main factors controlling soil erosion: the erosivity of the eroding agents (water), the erodibility of the soil (including stoniness), the slope steepness and the slope length of the land, the land cover and management, and the human practices designed to control erosion. The model estimates erosion by means of an empirical equation:

Er = R K L S C P

Where: Er = (annual) soil loss (tonne per hectare per year)
R = rainfall erosivity factor (MJ mm ha-1 h-1 yr-1)
K = soil erodibility factor (t ha h ha-1 MJ-1 mm-1)
L = slope length factor (dimensionless)
S = slope steepness factor (dimensionless)
C = cover management factor (dimensionless)
P = human practices aimed at erosion control (dimensionless)

  • Rainfall erosivity factor (R) (Map 5). The intensity of precipitations is one of the main factors affecting soil water erosion processes. R-factor is a measure of the precipitation’s erosivity and indicates the climatic influence on the erosion phenomenon through the mixed effect of rainfall action and superficial runoff, both laminar and rill. Wischmeier[22] identified a composite parameter EI, as the best indicator of rain erosivity. It is determined, for the ki-th rain event of the i-th year, by multiplying the kinetic energy of rain by the maximum rainfall intensity occurred within a temporal interval of 30 minutes. In RUSLE20015, the R-factor is calculated based on high-resolution temporal rainfall data (5, 10, 15, 30 and 60 minutes) collected from 1 541 well-distributed precipitation stations across Europe[23]. This first Rainfall Erosivity Database at the European Scale (REDES) was a major advancement in calculating rainfall erosivity in Europe. The precipitation time series used ranged from 7 to 56 years, with an average of 17.1 years. The time-series precipitation data of more than 75 % of EU countries cover the decade 2000-2010. Gaussian Process Regression (GPR)[24] has been used to interpolate the R-factor station values to a European rainfall erosivity map at 500 m resolution. The covariates used for the R-factor interpolation were climatic data (total precipitation, seasonal precipitation, precipitation of driest/wettest months, average temperature), elevation and latitude/longitude. The mean R-factor for the EU plus Switzerland is 722 MJ mm ha-1 h-1 yr-1, with the highest values (over 1 000 MJ mm ha-1 h-1 yr-1) in the Mediterranean and Alpine regions and the lowest (less than 500 MJ mm ha-1 h-1 yr-1) in the Nordic countries. The erosivity density (erosivity normalised to annual precipitation amounts) was also highest in Mediterranean regions which implies high risk for erosive events and floods. Data are available for download from the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC).
  • Soil erodibility factor (K) (Map 6). The K-factor is a lumped parameter that accounts for the reaction of the integrated annual soil profile to the process of soil detachment, and transport by raindrops and surface flow[25]. In RUSLE2015, the K-factor is estimated for the 20 000 field sampling points including in the Land use/cover area frame statistical survey (LUCAS). Following the Wischmeier and Smith (1978) nomograph, the K-factor uses five soil parameters as inputs: texture (silt, clay, sand fraction), organic matter content, coarse fragments content, permeability, and soil structure. The mean K-factor for Europe was estimated at 0.032 t ha h ha-1 MJ-1 mm-1 with a standard deviation of 0.009 t ha h ha-1 MJ-1 mm-1. The yielded soil erodibility dataset compared well with the published local and regional soil erodibility data. However, the incorporation of the protective effect of surface stone cover, which is usually not considered for the soil erodibility calculations, resulted in an on average 15 % decrease of the K-factor. The exclusion of this effect in K-factor calculations is likely to result in an overestimation of soil erosion, particularly for the Mediterranean countries, where highest percentages of surface stone cover were observed[26]. Data are available for download from the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC)
  • Topographic factors - slope length (L) and slope steepness (S) (Map 7). The influence of topography on soil loss modelling is accounted for within the slope length and slope steepness factors. The L-factor represents the impact of slope length, and the S-factor the influence of slope angle. The combined LS-factor (dimensionless) describes the potential of surface runoff in accelerating soil loss, and in most cases determines the spatial resolution (cell size) of the modelled soil loss results. In RUSLE2015, the LS-factor is calculated using the equations proposed by Desmet and Govers (1996). The LS-factor dataset was calculated using a high-resolution (25 m) Digital Elevation Model (DEM) for the whole European Union, resulting in an improved delineation of areas at risk of soil erosion as compared to lower-resolution datasets[27]. The LS-factor data are available for download in 2 resolutions (25m and 100m) from the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC).
  • Cover-Management factor (C) (Map 8). The C-factor accounts for the influence of land use (mainly vegetation type and cover) and management practices (mainly in arable land) in reducing the rate of soil erosion by water. The C-factor (dimensionless) is the ratio of soil loss from a specific land-cover type to the soil loss from a bare plot, and ranges between 0 and 1[28]. In RUSLE2015, the C-factor estimation is differentiated between arable and non-arable land. For all non-arable lands, the C-factor is determined mainly by vegetation. Non-arable land covers approximately 75 % of the EU. The CORINE Land Cover database (CLC 2012) was used to derive the different land-use classes of non-arable land in Europe, and to assign a range of C-values for each class. Using biophysical attributes such as vegetation-coverage density (derived from remote-sensing datasets of the Copernicus Programme), a C-value was assigned to each pixel based on the combination of land-use class and vegetation density. For arable land, the C-factor was estimated using Eurostat crop statistics and assigning the C-factor values per crop type based on an extensive literature review[29]. In addition, the effect of some management practices on soil loss rates was quantified at the European scale for the first time ever. The calculation of the C-factor of arable land included Eurostat data on soil-tillage practices, management of cover crops and plant residues. Land management practices (reduced/no tillage, management of cover crops and plant residues) decreased the C-factor for Europe by an average of 19.1 % in arable land, with reduced tillage having the largest impact on soil loss rates due to the large areas of application. Data are available for download from the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC).
  • Support Practices factor (P) (Map 9). The P-factor takes into account the support practices that reduce the erosion potential of runoff by influencing drainage patterns and the concentration and velocity of runoff[30]. The application of more efficient practices for controlling soil loss will result in a reduced P-value. Support practices are rarely taken into account in water-erosion modelling due to a lack of input data. The RUSLE2015 P-factor takes into account the contour farming implemented in EU agro-environmental policies and the protection against soil loss provided by stone walls and grass margins[31]. The P-factor was estimated using the latest developments in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and applying the rules set for contour farming over a certain slope gradient derived from the Good Agricultural Environmental Condition (GAEC) requirements. The 270 000 field observations of the LUCAS 2012 were used to model the presence and density of stone walls and grass margins[32]. The mean P-value for the EU was estimated at 0.97, while in agricultural lands it was estimated at around 0.95. Data are available for download from the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC).


A number of issues should be noted:

  • The model estimates soil loss caused by raindrop impact, overland flow (or sheet wash) and rill erosion. It does not estimate gully or stream-channel erosion. As a consequence, the risk of soil degradation in areas affected by different erosion phenomena (gully erosion, wind erosion, etc.) are probably underestimated.
  • As mentioned previously, the RUSLE2015 model is taking into account the best available high resolution input layers at European scale. The proposed rates are long-term averages. CORINE Land Cover classes (especially the sparse vegetation) ambiguity has increased the uncertainty of the presented model. As a consequence, quantitative assessments using the model should not be undertaken without the right awareness. Moreover, the rainfall erosivity prediction has high uncertainty in North Scandinavia, Scotland, high Alps and parts of Spain due to lack of high temporal resolution data.
  • There are also great difficulties in gathering enough information to drive an adequate validation of the model results, but this aspect applies to the output from any large area erosion-prediction model. The validation of erosion estimates at continental scale is not technically and financially feasible. One validation option is through the upscaling of local monitoring studies of large-scale modelling assessments.
  • The selection of input datasets in the development of this indicator is a crucial process as they have to offer the most homogeneous and complete spatial coverage of the target area.
  • The model must also allow the produced information to be harmonized and easily validated.
  • In the case of this indicator, verification against the data provided by the Member States through EIONET data collection was applied. Modelled results were compared with the soil erosion maps provided by different countries through the EIONET-SOIL network (Map 10). Most of the maps in this exercise were also calculated using the RUSLE model, using higher resolution datasets or containing less uncertainty. Overall, the results show a high correlation in the pattern of the erosion. The modelled mean loss rates (with RUSLE2015) and spatial patterns are very close to the reported EIONET-SOIL data in Germany, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Poland and Denmark. The RUSLE2015 soil loss results are slightly higher than those of EIONET-SOIL for Italy, and even higher for agricultural land areas of Austria. The EIONET-SOIL values reported for Belgium are much higher than those of RUSLE2015, especially in the Wallonian forests, while the EIONET-SOIL values reported for Slovakia are lower than those of RUSLE2015.
  • The PESERA model tends to estimate generally lower erosion rates than all other approaches due to its sediment module[33], with the exception of overestimating soil erosion in flat areas (Denmark, Po Valley in Italy). On the other hand, rainfall intensity is not included in the soil erosion map of Europe produced by Cerdan et al.[34], which is based on a plot database, leading to lower estimates for soil loss rates in countries with high rainfall erosivity (Italy, Austria).
  • The RUSLE2015 is of much improved quality compared to the e-RUSLE[35] as all the individual input layers are based on high resolution pan-European datasets. Moreover, each of the input layers has been reviewed by the scientific community and published in peer review journal and the datasets are publicly available in the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC): Soil Erodibility[36][37], Rainfall Erosivity[38], Slope Length and Steepness[39], Support Practices[40] and Cover-Management[41]. In RUSLE2015, a participatory approach has been followed as data from national/regional studies have been used for the soil erodibility validation, a network of experts from national meteorological services has been collaborated for the rainfall erosivity and EUROSTAT datasets (employed for the cover-management and support practices) are based on national surveys.

Context

Soil is a valuable, non-renewable resource that offers a multitude of ecosystems goods and services. Soil erosion is the wearing away of the land surface through the action of water and wind, and is exacerbated by tillage and other disturbances (e.g. removal by crop harvesting, dissolution and river bank erosion). At geological time-scales there is a balance between erosion and soil formation[42]. However, in many areas of the world there is an imbalance with respect to soil loss and its subsequent creation, caused principally by anthropogenic activities (mainly as a result of land use change) and climate change.

The Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection and the proposed Soil Framework Directive recognise soil erosion as a major threat to the soil resources of Europe and is one of three priority areas for policy recommendations. Soil erosion requires immediate attention and irreversible degradation is to be avoided in certain landscapes of Europe. Climate, vegetation cover, land use, topography and soil characteristics as well as conservation practice have a strong impact on soil erosion rates. Soil erosion reduces the ecological functions of soil over time. The main on-site consequences affect the biomass production and crop yields (due to removal of nutrients and reduction in soil filtering capacity).

The Mediterranean area is particularly prone to soil water erosion because of long dry periods followed by heavy bursts of intense precipitations on steep slopes with fragile soils. In some areas, erosion has reached a state of irreversibility with the complete removal of all soil material. Soil erosion in Northern Europe is generally less pronounced because of the lower erosivity of the rain and the higher vegetation cover. However, arable lands in this part of Europe are also susceptible to erosion, especially loamy soils after ploughing[43], as are some areas under natural vegetation.

Given the increasing threat of erosion by the detachment of soil particles by water in Europe, and the implications this has on future food security and water quality, it is important that land managers are provided with accurate and appropriate information on the amount of soil that is actually being lost. It is impractical and technically difficult to measure soil loss across whole landscapes and thus research is urgently needed to improve methods of estimating soil erosion using modelling, upon which mitigation can be implemented.

A wide variety of models are available for soil water erosion estimation. The selection of a model depends mainly on the purpose for which it is intended and the available dataset. Some models are designed to predict soil erosion from single storms while others predict long-term effects. Models such as the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) and derived versions[44]  are developed to predict only sheet and rill soil erosion and do not take into account other processes like gully erosion. Most models have been designed for local scale applications. Therefore, several problematic issues occur when applying quantitative soil erosion models at regional-level or for smaller scale mapping.

At the regional scales, outputs need to be interpreted carefully and a reliable estimation of absolute soil erosion rates is almost impossible to obtain. Because of all these issues the relative values obtained when applying soil erosion models at regional levels are generally more reliable than the absolute values. Readers should be aware that the model gives a broad overview of the soil water erosion phenomena in the landscape rather than providing an accurate value for a specific point. However, it is better not to take decisions at pixel level (100 meters resolution) where it is recommended to use local measurements. It should also be pointed out that the soil loss rates presented in this document are long-term averages and should not be compared with event-based observations, given the large seasonal variability of rainfall erosivity and land cover (R- and C-factors)[45]. Moreover, users should take into account the fact that an additional model component is needed to predict sediment yields from catchment areas[46].

The soil erosion indicators presented here have been obtained by applying a soil water erosion model. Two indicators are proposed to locate the areas with an estimated level of erosion. Only soil erosion resulting from rainsplash, overland flow (also known as sheetwash) and rill formation are considered. In most situations, erosion by concentrated flow (rills and gullies) is the main agent of erosion by water. The most effective processes to detach and remove soil by water are: 

  • Rainfall has the ability to move soil particles directly. This is known as rainsplash erosion. This action is only effective if the rain falls with sufficient intensity. When raindrops hit bare soil, their kinetic energy is able to detach and move soil particles a short distance. Because soil particles can only be moved short distances (few millimetres at the most), its effects are solely on-site. Although considerable quantities of soil may be moved by rainsplash, it is generally all redistributed back over the surface of the soil. On steep slopes, there can be a modest net downslope movement of splashed soil due to the effect of gravity and the gradient of the land. Rainsplash erosion requires high rainfall intensities such as those that accompany convective rainstorms. Rainsplash erosion also weakens the soil surface structure, making it more vulnerable for transport by overland flow.
  • Overland flow occurs either when the soil is infiltrated to full capacity and excess water from rain, meltwater or other sources, flows over the land as a sheet. Alternatively, the rainfall rate may be higher than the infiltration rate of the soil. Sheetwash erosion occurs without any well defined channel and can manifest itself across entire slopes. As a consequence, the erosion can affect large areas and move significant amounts of soil.
  • Rills occur when overland flow begins to develop preferential flow paths. In turn, these flow paths are eroded further which results in small, well-defined linear concentrations of overland water. In many cases, small rills may disappear over time due to sedimentation. However, persistent micro-rills can develop further to become rills, with a subset eventually becoming gullies.
  • Gullies are deeper channels, often resulting from unchecked rill erosion. Due to their size, gullies are capable of moving large amounts of soil, into larger channels such as streams and rivers and thus out of the original site. Gully erosion is not considered in the RUSLE model.


Other forms of erosion (for example, gully erosion and wind erosion) are important and should be considered in the future. In 2014, the Joint Research Centre has developed the first qualitative assessments of wind erosion at European level[47]. At the end of 2015, a quantitate assessment of wind erosion will be published.

Policy relevance and context

The European Union’s Sixth Environment Action Programme (Decision No 1600/2002/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council) declared a necessity to protect soil against degradation, due to the influence of human actions. This resulted in the publication of a Thematic strategy for soil protection (Communication COM/2006/0231 final). Through this Strategy, the European Union has defined an action plan for soil conservation in Europe. With the EU Soil Thematic Strategy, the objective to define a common and comprehensive approach to soil protection, focusing on the preservation of soil functions, has been introduced. It is based on the principles of preventing further soil degradation and preserving its functions; and restoring degraded soils to a level of functionality consistent at least with current and intended use.

The Soil Thematic Strategy considers a number of soil degradation processes, including erosion, that should be identified and for which appropriate measures should be put in place to preserve soil functions.

Soil has not been subject to a dedicated protection policy at EU level. Provisions for soil protection are spread across many different areas, either under environmental protection or other policy areas such as agriculture and rural development. These provisions are considered to not offer a sufficient level of soil protection. A coordinated action at European level would therefore appear necessary, hence the adoption of the Soil Thematic Strategy and of the proposed Soil Framework Directive. The state of soil influences other environmental and food safety aspects governed at EU level giving an international dimension of the problem. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) contributes to preventing and mitigating soil degradation processes. In particular, agri-environment measures (which offer opportunities for favouring the build-up of soil organic matter, the enhancement of soil biodiversity, the reduction of soil erosion, contamination and compaction) and cross-compliance (which can play an important role for soil protection).

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the main EU policy through which farmers are receiving incentives. In order to get those incentives, farmers must comply with “best practice” land use management practices (named cross-compliance). The main component of cross-compliance is the farmer’s obligation to keep his land under Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC). This regulation requests the farmers to prevent soil erosion, conserve soil organic carbon and maintain soil structure. An option to assess the effect of GAEC on soil erosion reduction is based on the use of soil erosion risk models.

Agri-environmental context

Soil erosion costs the economy a large amount of money. Research on the quantification of external effects of soil erosion is more advanced in the United States of America and Australia than in Europe. Only a few examples can be shown for Europe but sufficient cases exist to establish a reliable impression of the real situation. J.N.Pretty et al.[48] calculated that the annual external costs for agricultural production in the UK from soil erosion were almost EUR 3.5 billion and at least EUR 1.8 billion in Germany.

Main consequences of soil erosion are: loss of fertile land due to disrupted nutrient cycles, loss of organic carbon and biodiversity, destruction to infrastructures (roads, dams, water supply networks, railways, etc) due to excessive sediment load, diffuse pollution of surface water, negative effects on aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity, restrictions to land use impeding redevelopment and reducing the area for agricultural, forestry and recreation activities, depreciation of land value, flood risk and transfer of sediments to ports.

On-site effects of water soil erosion (loss of organic matter and nutrients, soil structure degradation, plant uprooting, reduction of available soil moisture, etc.) are particularly important on agricultural areas resulting in a reduction of cultivable soil depth and a decline in soil fertility. The loss of soil productivity following erosion may be significant. Topsoil, which is the most fertile layer of the soil, is the most exposed to erosion; also the mechanisms of soil erosion preferentially remove soil organic matter, clay, and fine silt material. Soil erosion also reduces the volume of soil available for plants roots and degrades soil physical properties (such as water holding capacity). In most cases extra fertilizer can compensate the impacts of soil erosion on soil fertility, but it represents an extra cost for farmers, and does little to offset the physical impacts of erosion on soil productivity. An additional on-site cost which cannot be easily quantified is the impact on tourism due to ecosystem degradation.

Off-site effects of soil water erosion arise from sedimentation, which causes infrastructure burial, changes in watercourses shape and obstruction of drainage networks enhancing the risk of flooding and shortening the life of reservoirs. Many irrigation or hydroelectricity projects have been damaged by soil water erosion. Additional effects of soil erosion can impact the water quality and the recreational activities.

Generally, high intensity agricultural land use leads to higher soil loss by water and wind erosion, especially in potentially high erosion risk areas. However, the reverse could equally be true. For example, an intensive farming system employing soil conservation measures such as terracing and cover crops may result in less soil erosion than a more extensive system that does not involve conservation techniques. Intensive land use can be combined with efficient soil conservation measures.

RUSLE2015 quantifies the impact of management and conservation practices (mainly introduced in GAEC) such as reduced tillage, management of cover crops, plant residues, maintenance of stone walls, contour farming and grass margins. The implementation of GAEC on the agricultural land in Member States reduced soil loss rates. Since no statistical data were available about the conservation and management practices before the GAEC implementation in 2003, based on our hypothesis we assume that those management practices were previously not applied or were only applied to a very limited extent. If no GAEC requirements had been applied in the EU, the mean soil loss rate in the European Union study area (agricultural land, forests and semi-natural areas) would have been 2.71 tonnes per ha per year. Compared to the current estimated mean annual rate of 2.46 tonnes per ha per year, this implies that overall soil loss in the EU was reduced by 9.5 % during the past decade due to policy measurements (GAEC). Among the management practices, the reduced tillage had the greatest impact in reducing soil loss in arable land[49]. The relatively high frequency of grass margins and the high impact of stone walls in reducing soil loss have contributed with 3 % to overall soil erosion reduction[50]. Cover crops, plant residues and contouring have a limited contribution to soil erosion reduction due to their limited application.

Regarding the soil erosion trends resulting from changes in land cover, rainfall erosivity or management practices, past assessments showed that land cover changes identified by 2000 and 2006 CORINE Land Cover data are very limited. The results do not show any particular trend in the erosion of soil by water at a time interval of 6 years (2000 and 2006). RUSLE2015 model allows to incorporate land use and climate change scenarios. Using the pan-European Land Use Modelling Platform (LUMP)[51], it is possible to predict that soil loss will decrease mainly due to increase of forest areas in the expense of semi-natural ones. The rainfall erosivity prediction for 2050 is under development as this much depends on the decrease of precipitation based on WorldClim’s future scenarios for Europe[52] combined with an increased intensity of events. Finally, the new CAP 2014-2020 certainly promotes the increase of grass margins and the maintenance of stone walls which reduce soil loss.

The soil organic carbon cycle is affected by erosion, since large quantities of sediments and SOC are moved and re-deposited downhill especially in agricultural areas. RUSLE2015 can potentially improve the scientific knowledge of one component of the global carbon fluxes, which has to date often been neglected in the past due to lack of data. For instance, it is now possible to combine the top soil organic carbon stock estimates in European agricultural land provided by Lugato et al.[53] and the soil erosion estimated by RUSLE2015.

See also

Further Eurostat information

Publications 

Database

  • Agri-environmental indicators (aei)
Pressures and risks (aei_pr)
Soil erosion by water by NUTS 3 regions (data source: JRC) (aei_pr_soiler)

Dedicated section

Source data for tables, figures and maps (MS Excel)

Other information

Legislation: Commission Staff working document accompanying COM(2006)508 final
Corresponding Fact sheet 14

External links

  • Database:
  • Other external links:
  • European Commission

Notes

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  9. Panagos, P., Meusburger, K., Van Liedekerke, M., Alewell, C., Hiederer, R., Montanarella, L. 2014a. Assessing soil erosion in Europe based on data collected through a European Network. Soil Science and Plant Nutrition, 2014. 60 (1):15-29.
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