Rainfall/runoff/erosion relationships and soil properties survey in abandoned shallow soils of NE Spain

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Purpose: Shallow soils previously cultivated under terraced systems may change their properties after agricultural release and spontaneous plant colonization. Investigations were conducted in terraced fields (NE Spain) to prove that vegetation installed after the abandonment may generally improve soil properties by the formation of stable organic horizons. However, restriction in plant species along the natural vegetation succession and intensification of erosion processes may occur after abandonment depending on fire frequency and soil use history. Materials and methods: Ten environments with different plant covers under a Lithic Xerorthent were selected and erosion plots (Gerlach type) installed providing their best adaptability at the terrace scale. Selected soil environments represented the sequence of abandonment: from current poorly cultivated soils, soils under pasture, soils under shrubs, and soils under stands of pine and cork trees. Relevant rainfall events producing runoff and erosion were recorded from November 2011 to May 2012. Erosion rates and erosion components were analysed in sediments and water in order to monitor carbon, nitrogen and other nutrient removal by overland flow. Similarly, the physical and chemical properties of the soil environments under study were determined at the same time interval of runoff erosion. Results and discussion: Soils under pasture, vines and recently burnt pine forest produced the highest runoff followed by soils under shrubs and forest. However, eroded soil yields and nutrient removal were much higher in cultivated soils and soils in recently burnt sites, which had shown poorer soil properties with respect to soils abandoned for longer and preserved by fire. Fire-affected soil environments also showed a thinner organic horizon and reduced water retention. Although erosion rates and nutrient depletion were low in all environments with respect to other areas of Spain, higher splash than water erosion was an early warning indicator of the high susceptibility to degradation of these shallow soils. Conclusions: Results outlined that the renaturalization dynamics after agricultural abandonment are complex biophysical processes involving the parent material, depth to bedrock and other soil properties as well as the succession of vegetative cover and plant associations responsible for building a new soil mantle contrasting with erosion processes. Planning for management of land abandonment is strongly recommended ​
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