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Soil moisture, stressed vegetation and the spatial structure of soil erosion in a high latitude rangeland

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Nick CutlerORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


Soil erosion has been a persistent problem in high-latitude regions and may worsen as climate change unfolds and encourages increased anthropogenic exploitation. We propose that soil moisture is likely to shape future erosion trends, as moisture stress reduces the capacity of vegetation cover to retard erosive processes. However, the spatial variability of soil moisture in high-latitude soils - and the ways in which this variability drives the spatial distribution of erosion features - is poorly understood. We addressed this knowledge gap with a study of andosol erosion in southern Iceland. Our study used a combination of high-resolution (< 3 cm) remote sensing data (using NDVI and NDRE as metrics of plant vitality) and long-term, in situ measurements of soil moisture to unpick the relationship between moisture stress, vegetation vitality and patchy soil erosion. Mean NDVI increased with distance from eroded areas, varying from ~0.6 in vegetated areas on the margins of erosion patches to ~0.8 in areas >10 m from eroded terrain. We found lower moisture availability close to existing erosion features: mean volumetric soil moisture content varied from 17% (proximal to erosion patch) to 36% (distal to erosion patch). We also found that variability in soil moisture decreased with distance from eroded areas: the coefficient of variation (CV) in soil moisture varied from 0.33 (proximal to erosion patch) to 0.13 (distal to erosion). Our findings indicate that the margins of erosion patches have a stressful soil environment due to exposure to the atmosphere. The vegetation in these locations grows less vigorously and the exposed soil becomes more vulnerable to erosion, leading to erosion patch expansion and coalescence. If these conditions hold more generally, they may represent a feedback mechanism that facilitates the lateral propagation of soil erosion in high-latitude regions.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Cutler NA, Kodl G, Streeter RT, Thompson PIJ, Dugmore AJ

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: European Journal of Soil Science

Year: 2023

Volume: 74

Issue: 4

Print publication date: 03/07/2023

Online publication date: 20/06/2023

Acceptance date: 14/06/2023

Date deposited: 03/07/2023

ISSN (print): 1351-0754

ISSN (electronic): 1365-2389

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd.


DOI: 10.1111/ejss.13393


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Funder referenceFunder name
University of St Andrews