Soil erosion and the global carbon budget

Environ Int. 2003 Jul;29(4):437-50. doi: 10.1016/S0160-4120(02)00192-7.


Soil erosion is the most widespread form of soil degradation. Land area globally affected by erosion is 1094 million ha (Mha) by water erosion, of which 751 Mha is severely affected, and 549 Mha by wind erosion, of which 296 Mha is severely affected. Whereas the effects of erosion on productivity and non-point source pollution are widely recognized, those on the C dynamics and attendant emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are not. Despite its global significance, erosion-induced carbon (C) emission into the atmosphere remains misunderstood and an unquantified component of the global carbon budget. Soil erosion is a four-stage process involving detachment, breakdown, transport/redistribution and deposition of sediments. The soil organic carbon (SOC) pool is influenced during all four stages. Being a selective process, erosion preferentially removes the light organic fraction of a low density of <1.8 Mg/m(3). A combination of mineralization and C export by erosion causes a severe depletion of the SOC pool on eroded compared with uneroded or slightly eroded soils. In addition, the SOC redistributed over the landscape or deposited in depressional sites may be prone to mineralization because of breakdown of aggregates leading to exposure of hitherto encapsulated C to microbial processes among other reasons. Depending on the delivery ratio or the fraction of the sediment delivered to the river system, gross erosion by water may be 75 billion Mg, of which 15-20 billion Mg are transported by the rivers into the aquatic ecosystems and eventually into the ocean. The amount of total C displaced by erosion on the earth, assuming a delivery ratio of 10% and SOC content of 2-3%, may be 4.0-6.0 Pg/year. With 20% emission due to mineralization of the displaced C, erosion-induced emission may be 0.8-1.2 Pg C/year on the earth. Thus, soil erosion has a strong impact on the global C cycle and this component must be considered while assessing the global C budget. Adoption of conservation-effective measures may reduce the risks of C emission and sequester C in soil and biota.

MeSH terms

  • Carbon / analysis
  • Carbon / metabolism*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources*
  • Greenhouse Effect*
  • Soil Microbiology
  • Soil*
  • Water Movements
  • Wind


  • Soil
  • Carbon