More than 57 billion tons of soil have eroded in the U.S. Midwest
With soils rich for cultivation, most land in the Midwestern United States has been converted from tallgrass prairie to agricultural fields. Less than 0.1 percent of the original prairie remains.
This shift over the last 160 years has resulted in staggering — and unsustainable — soil erosion rates for the region, researchers report in the March Earth’s Future. The erosion is estimated to be double the rate that the U.S. Department of Agriculture says is sustainable. If it continues unabated, it could significantly limit future crop production, the scientists say.
In the new study, the team focused on erosional escarpments — tiny cliffs formed through erosion — lying at boundaries between prairie and agricultural fields (SN: 1/20/96). “These rare prairie remnants that are scattered across the Midwest are sort of a preservation of the pre-European-American settlement land surface,” says Isaac Larsen, a geologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
At 20 sites in nine Midwestern states, with most sites located in Iowa, Larsen and colleagues used a specialized GPS system to survey the altitude of the prairie and farm fields. That GPS system “tells you where you are within about a centimeter on Earth’s surface,” Larsen says. This enables the researchers to detect even small differences between the height of the prairie and the farmland.
At each site, the researchers took these measurements at 10 or more spots. The team then measured erosion by comparing the elevation differences of the farmed and prairie land. The researchers found that the agricultural fields were 0.37 meters below the prairie areas, on average.
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