Soil erosion: addressing the hazard through Copernicus data and tools

Centro Euro-Mediterraneo sui Cambiamenti Climatici

There is potential for loss of soil due to intense rainfall events and land management in both forests and agricultural areas. Just released are a dataset and two applications, developed by the CMCC for investigating rainfall-induced soil erosion in Italy, using free-to access data and tools from the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) Climate Data Store.

Water-induced soil erosion happens when soil becomes detached and is then transported and deposited due to rainfall, runoff, snow melting or irrigation. When the soil erosion rate is higher than the soil formation rate, the soil becomes depleted and the potential for the land to be used productively is reduced.

Soil erosion comes with a range of negative consequences, from reducing agricultural yield to damaging buildings, and the country that suffers the highest economic impact in the EU is Italy (Panagos et al. 2018). Using data and tools from the C3S Climate Data Store (CDS), the Foundation Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC) has developed a dataset and two applications for investigating rainfall-induced soil erosion in Italy.

CMCC produced the “Soil erosion indicators for Italy from 1981 to 2080” dataset by integrating CDS rainfall data with non-climate data to assess soil susceptibility to water erosion, according to the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) approach. RUSLE is an empirical model of soil loss that accounts for soil susceptibility to erosion and rainfall erosivity*.

*Soil susceptibility to erosion is assumed to be influenced by factors that seemingly do not change on human timescales, such as soil properties and topography, or change less rapidly than atmospheric conditions, such as land cover and management. Soil susceptibility covers soil erodibility and more.

Rainfall erosivity strongly depends on the severity and frequency of extreme precipitation events. The assessment of this factor to quantify current versus future potential soil loss exploits the latest generation of rainfall data available in the CDS.

In more detail: the CMCC research team selected a set of empirical models to compute rainfall erosivity (the R-factor) while exploiting the potential of CDS datasets. A comparison of the R-factor calculated under empirical models with a rigorous approach confirms that exploiting CDS rainfall time series within the models gives, on average, a good prediction of the actual erosivity.

The soil erosion dataset and two applications are freely available in the CDS. One application allows users to explore soil erosion for Italy from 1981–2080, and the other is a ‘what if’ tool for exploring how land use – related to vegetation cover, management and soil erosion protection practices – can impact soil loss under different climatic scenarios.

For the most recent decades, the applications use time series of rainfall data from C3S’ ERA5-Land reanalysis dataset, with a horizontal resolution of around 9 kilometres.

For the future, the ensemble of simulations within EURO-CORDEX (resolution ~12 kilometres, daily time step), bias-corrected based on ERA5-Land, is used to project the possible evolution of rainfall erosivity considering the uncertainties in the future climate.

The C3S soil erosion dataset and applications are designed to meet the needs of a variety of end users, particularly in sectors related to landscape management. Through the applications, users can gather and visualize information about water-induced soil erosion for regions of interest, taking into account how climate change may evolve in the future depending on levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The applications will increase awareness amongst land management actors and territorial planners on how farming practices, forest management or post-disturbance recovery of soil (for example, after floods and fires) can contribute to mitigating the hazards associated with soil erosion and consequently decrease physical and economic risks.

The dataset is also publicly available for download from the CMCC Data Delivery System (CMCC DDS); a unique, consistent and seamless access point for all data produced and used by CMCC.

The dataset and applications were produced by the Foundation Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC) with funding from the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), which is implemented by ECMWF on behalf of the European Commission, using data and tools from the C3S Climate Data Store.

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