Human impact on surface geological processes

By Steve Drury First PUBLISHED ON November 29, 2020

I last wrote about sedimentation during the ‘Anthropocene’ a year ago (See: Sedimentary deposits of the ‘Anthropocene’, November 2019). Human impact in that context is staggeringly huge: annually we shift 57 billion tonnes of rock and soil, equivalent to six times the mass of the UKs largest mountain, Ben Nevis. All the world’s rivers combined move about 35 billion tonnes less.

I don’t particularly care for erecting a new Epoch in the Stratigraphic Column, and even less about when the ‘Anthropocene’ is supposed to have started. The proposal continues to be debated 12 years after it was first suggested to the IUGS International Commission on Stratigraphy. I suppose I am a bit ‘old fashioned’, but the proposal is for a stratigraphic entity that is vastly shorter than the smallest globally significant subdivision of geological time (an Age) and the duration of most of the recorded mass extinctions, which are signified by horizontal lines in the Column.

By way of illustration, the thick, extensive bed of Carboniferous sandstone on which I live is one of many deposited in the early part of the Namurian Age (between 328 and 318 Ma). Nonetheless, anthropogenic sediments of, say, the last 200 years are definitely substantial. A measure of just how substantial is provided by a paper published online (Kemp, S.B. et al. 2020. The human impact on North American erosion, sediment transfer, and storage in a geologic contextNature Communications, v. 11, article 6012; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-19744-3).

‘Badlands’ formed by accelerated soil erosion.

Anthropogenic erosion, sediment transfer and deposition in North America kicked off with its colonisation by European immigrants since the early 16th century. First Americans were hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers and left virtually no traces in the landscape, other than their artefacts and, in the case of farmers, their dwellings. Kemp and colleagues have focussed on late-Pleistocene alluvial sediment, accumulation of which seems to have been pretty stable for 40 ka.

Since colonisation began the rate has increased to, at present, ten times that previously stable rate, mainly during the last 200 years of accelerated spread of farmland. This is dominated by outcomes of two agricultural practices – ploughing and deforestation. Breaking of the complex and ancient prairie soils, formerly held together by deep, dense mats of grass root systems, made even flat surfaces highly prone to soil erosion, demonstrated by the ‘dust bowl’ conditions of the Great Depression during the 1930s. In more rugged relief, deforestation made slopes more likely to fail through landslides and other mass movements.

Damming of streams and rivers for irrigation or, its opposite, to drain wetlands resulted in alterations to the channels themselves and their flow regimes. Consequently, older alluvium succumbed to bank erosion. Increased deposition behind an explosion of mill dams and changed flow regimes in the reaches of streams below them had effects disproportionate to the size of the dams (see: Watermills and meanders, March 2008). Stream flow beforehand was slower and flooding more balanced than it has been over the last few hundred years. Increased flooding, the building of ever larger flood defences and an increase in flood magnitude, duration and extent when defences were breached form a vicious circle that quickly transformed the lower reaches of the largest American river basins.

North American rates of alluvium deposition since 40 Ka ago – the time axis is logarithmic. (Credit: Kemp et al., 2020; Fig. 2)

All this deserves documentation and quantification, which Kemp et al. have attempted at 400 alluvial study sites across the continent, measuring >4700 rates of sediment accumulation at various times during the past 40 thousand years. Such deposition serves roughly as a proxy for erosion rate, but that is a function of multiple factors, such as run-off of rain- and snow-melt water, anthropogenic changes to drainage courses and to slope stability.

The scale of post-settlement sedimentation is not the same across the whole continent. In some areas, such as southern California, the rate over the last 200 years is lower than the estimated natural, pre-settlement rate: this example may be due to increased capture of surface water for irrigation of a semi-arid area so that erosion and transport were retarded. In others it seems to be unchanged, probably for a whole variety of reason. The highest rates are in the main areas of rain-fed agriculture of the mid-west of the US and western Canada.

In a nutshell, during the last century the North American capitalism shifted as much sediment as would be moved naturally in between 700 to 3000 years. No such investigation has been attempted in other parts of the world that have histories of intense agriculture going back several thousand years, such as the plains of China, northern India and Mesopotamia, the lower Nile valley, the great plateau of the Ethiopian Highlands, and Europe. This is a global problem and despite its continent-wide scope the study by Kemp et al. barely scratches the surface. Despite earnest endeavours to reduce soil erosion in the US and a few other areas, it does seem as if the damage has been done and is irreversible.

If you’d like to read more of Steve’s blog……

Many thanks to Steve Drury for permission to republish his article and to Bernie Bell for sending it into The Orkney News

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