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Soil Erosion and Degradation

One of the topics studied in GCSE Geography is soil erosion and degradation. This quiz looks not only at the causes of soil erosion, but also the effects - such as how it damages ecosystems.

In the past 150 years half the topsoil on the planet has been lost. In addition compaction, loss of soil structure, loss of nutrients and an increase of salinity are damaging other parts of soil, destroying its ecosystems and the chances for plants to reclaim the land and begin to form a new ecosystem.

This loss of soil also damages other environments. It increases the pollution in the waterways and the sedimentation in streams and rivers. Blocking these waterways reduces the drainage and so removes the possibility of fish and other aquatic life breeding and occupying these valuable resources.

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When you are studying soil erosion and degradation you start to think about how something as seemingly insignificant as soil is the foundation of all the living things. The nutrients that the plants need to grow and begin the food chain are found in the soil. And most of the nutrient cycles that return these valuable compounds into the food chain take place in the ecosystems that are hidden within the soil.

Whilst natural ecosystems support and are supported by the soil, agriculture often damages it and is the cause of soil loss. Farming practices increase the process of soil run-off. Huge areas of rainforest are being cut down to provide land for coffee, cotton, palm oil, soya beans and wheat. These crops are unable to trap the soil as the forest did and so run-off increases. In places of high rainfall, as the former rainforest is, a single season can be enough to leave the soil completely unable to support plant growth.

Have a go at this quiz and test your knowledge of the causes and the effects of soil erosion and degradation.

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  1. When a field is ploughed, why is it best to plough at right angles to the slope?
    Ploughing leaves behind ridges and furrows. If these are across the slope they trap water and runoff, but if they are down slope they encourage the water to run downhill and carry soil away with it
  2. What happens to the soil when salinisation occurs?
    Salt is toxic to many plants, so the soil ends up being bare and therefore more easily subjected to erosion. Irrigation can lead to salinisation. As water is brought in, it evaporates, drawing the salt up to the surface and leaving a layer that is dense in salt
  3. What type of erosion occurs when moderate rainfall on bare soil removes the topsoil down-slope?
    Sheet erosion is worse in areas with steep slopes, often removing the soil down to bare rock
  4. On many islands and in some nature reserves, goats are being removed and banned. How does removing goats and similar grazing animals reduce soil erosion?
    The roots of plants bind soil together, so, without vegetation, soil is more susceptible to erosion. Goats will even climb trees and strip leaves, thus reducing leaf litter
  5. What is the danger of soil being left bare in hot, dry zones?
    Bare soils can be caused by overgrazing or extreme droughts
  6. Where do most nutrients in soils come from?
    Since the nutrients come from decaying organic matter, they tend to be concentrated in the top layer of the soil
  7. Nomadic tribespeople are becoming more sedentary, leading to over cultivation. How is over cultivation defined?
    Nomadic populations are being encouraged to settle down in fixed areas by the increase in land ownership and facilities such as stand pipes
  8. What form of erosion occurs when intense rainfall cuts small streams into slopes in areas with little or no vegetation cover?
    Tropical storms can cut gullies into slopes. These can become deep channels that flood in the wet seasons
  9. Heavy machinery often leads to soil compaction. How does soil compaction lead to soil erosion?
    Surface runoff causes soil erosion. Soil structure is a delicate balance and can be destroyed by compaction. Protecting the soil structure is a key method of reducing soil erosion
  10. Which of the following is not a method of soil conservation?
    Slash and burn agriculture removes all of the plant life from the surface exposing the soil to erosion

Author: Ruth M

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