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The extent of soil loss across the US Corn Belt

OPEN Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America | 18 Feb 2021

EA Thaler, IJ Larsen and Q Yu
Abstract
Soil erosion in agricultural landscapes reduces crop yields, leads to loss of ecosystem services, and influences the global carbon cycle. Despite decades of soil erosion research, the magnitude of historical soil loss remains poorly quantified across large agricultural regions because preagricultural soil data are rare, and it is challenging to extrapolate local-scale erosion observations across time and space. Here we focus on the Corn Belt of the midwestern United States and use a remote-sensing method to map areas in agricultural fields that have no remaining organic carbon-rich A-horizon. We use satellite and LiDAR data to develop a relationship between A-horizon loss and topographic curvature and then use topographic data to scale-up soil loss predictions across 3.9 × 105 km2 of the Corn Belt. Our results indicate that 35 ± 11% of the cultivated area has lost A-horizon soil and that prior estimates of soil degradation from soil survey-based methods have significantly underestimated A-horizon soil loss. Convex hilltops throughout the region are often completely denuded of A-horizon soil. The association between soil loss and convex topography indicates that tillage-induced erosion is an important driver of soil loss, yet tillage erosion is not simulated in models used to assess nationwide soil loss trends in the United States. We estimate that A-horizon loss decreases crop yields by 6 ± 2%, causing $2.8 ± $0.9 billion in annual economic losses. Regionally, we estimate 1.4 ± 0.5 Pg of carbon have been removed from hillslopes by erosion of the A-horizon, much of which likely remains buried in depositional areas within the fields.
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