Rainfall and surface runoff
Rainfall, and the surface runoff which may result from rainfall, produces four main types of soil erosion: splash erosion, sheet erosion, rill erosion, and gully erosion. Splash erosion is generally seen as the first and least severe stage in the soil erosion process, which is followed by sheet erosion, then rill erosion and finally gully erosion (the most severe of the four).
In splash erosion, the impact of a falling raindrop creates a small crater in the soil, ejecting soil particles. The distance these soil particles travel can be as much as 0.6 m (two feet) vertically and 1.5 m (five feet) horizontally on level ground.
If the soil is saturated, or if the rainfall rate is greater than the rate at which water can infiltrate into the soil, surface runoff occurs. If the runoff has sufficient flow energy, it will transport loosened soil particles (sediment) down the slope. Sheet erosion is the transport of loosened soil particles by overland flow.
Rill erosion refers to the development of small, ephemeral concentrated flow paths which function as both sediment source and sediment delivery systems for erosion on hillslopes. Generally, where water erosion rates on disturbed upland areas are greatest, rills are active. Flow depths in rills are typically of the order of a few centimeters (about an inch) or less and along-channel slopes may be quite steep. This means that rills exhibit hydraulic physics very different from water flowing through the deeper, wider channels of streams and rivers.
Gully erosion occurs when runoff water accumulates and rapidly flows in narrow channels during or immediately after heavy rains or melting snow, removing soil to a considerable depth.
Rivers and streams
Dobbingstone Burn, Scotland—This photo illustrates two different types of erosion affecting the same place. Valley erosion is occurring due to the flow of the stream, and the boulders and stones (and much of the soil) that are lying on the edges are glacial till
that was left behind as ice age glaciers flowed over the terrain.
Valley or stream erosion occurs with continued water flow along a linear feature. The erosion is both downward, deepening the valley, and headward, extending the valley into the hillside, creating head cuts and steep banks. In the earliest stage of stream erosion, the erosive activity is dominantly vertical, the valleys have a typical V cross-section and the stream gradient is relatively steep. When some base level is reached, the erosive activity switches to lateral erosion, which widens the valley floor and creates a narrow floodplain. The stream gradient becomes nearly flat, and lateral deposition of sediments becomes important as the stream meanders across the valley floor. In all stages of stream erosion, by far the most erosion occurs during times of flood, when more and faster-moving water is available to carry a larger sediment load. In such processes, it is not the water alone that erodes: suspended abrasive particles, pebbles and boulders can also act erosively as they traverse a surface, in a process known as traction.
Bank erosion is the wearing away of the banks of a stream or river. This is distinguished from changes on the bed of the watercourse, which is referred to as scour. Erosion and changes in the form of river banks may be measured by inserting metal rods into the bank and marking the position of the bank surface along the rods at different times.
Thermal erosion is the result of melting and weakening permafrost due to moving water. It can occur both along rivers and at the coast. Rapid river channel migration observed in the Lena River of Siberia is due to thermal erosion, as these portions of the banks are composed of permafrost-cemented non-cohesive materials. Much of this erosion occurs as the weakened banks fail in large slumps. Thermal erosion also affects the Arctic coast, where wave action and near-shore temperatures combine to undercut permafrost bluffs along the shoreline and cause them to fail. Annual erosion rates along a 100-kilometre (62-mile) segment of the Beaufort Sea shoreline averaged 5.6 metres (18 feet) per year from 1955 to 2002.
At extremely high flows, kolks, or vortices are formed by large volumes of rapidly rushing water. Kolks cause extreme local erosion, plucking bedrock and creating pothole-type geographical features called Rock-cut basins. Examples can be seen in the flood regions result from glacial Lake Missoula, which created the channeled scablands in the Columbia Basin region of eastern Washington.
Wind erosion is a major geomorphological force, especially in arid and semi-arid regions. It is also a major source of land degradation, evaporation, desertification, harmful airborne dust, and crop damage—especially after being increased far above natural rates by human activities such as deforestation, urbanization, and agriculture.
Wind erosion is of two primary varieties: deflation, where the wind picks up and carries away loose particles; and abrasion, where surfaces are worn down as they are struck by airborne particles carried by wind. Deflation is divided into three categories: (1) surface creep, where larger, heavier particles slide or roll along the ground; (2) saltation, where particles are lifted a short height into the air, and bounce and saltate across the surface of the soil; and (3) suspension, where very small and light particles are lifted into the air by the wind, and are often carried for long distances. Saltation is responsible for the majority (50–70%) of wind erosion, followed by suspension (30–40%), and then surface creep (5–25%). Silty soils tend to be the most affected by wind erosion; silt particles are relatively easily detached and carried away.
Wind erosion is much more severe in arid areas and during times of drought. For example, in the Great Plains, it is estimated that soil loss due to wind erosion can be as much as 6100 times greater in drought years than in wet years.
Wadi in Makhtesh Ramon, Israel, showing gravity collapse erosion on its banks.
Mass movement is the downward and outward movement of rock and sediments on a sloped surface, mainly due to the force of gravity.
Mass movement is an important part of the erosional process, and is often the first stage in the breakdown and transport of weathered materials in mountainous areas. It moves material from higher elevations to lower elevations where other eroding agents such as streams and glaciers can then pick up the material and move it to even lower elevations. Mass-movement processes are always occurring continuously on all slopes; some mass-movement processes act very slowly; others occur very suddenly, often with disastrous results. Any perceptible down-slope movement of rock or sediment is often referred to in general terms as a landslide. However, landslides can be classified in a much more detailed way that reflects the mechanisms responsible for the movement and the velocity at which the movement occurs. One of the visible topographical manifestations of a very slow form of such activity is a scree slope.
Slumping happens on steep hillsides, occurring along distinct fracture zones, often within materials like clay that, once released, may move quite rapidly downhill. They will often show a spoon-shaped isostatic depression, in which the material has begun to slide downhill. In some cases, the slump is caused by water beneath the slope weakening it. In many cases it is simply the result of poor engineering along highways where it is a regular occurrence.
Surface creep is the slow movement of soil and rock debris by gravity which is usually not perceptible except through extended observation. However, the term can also describe the rolling of dislodged soil particles 0.5 to 1.0 mm (0.02 to 0.04 in) in diameter by wind along the soil surface.