Soil quality assessment through a multi-approach analysis in soils of abandoned terraced land in NE Spain

The abandonment of agricultural land in mountainous areas has been an outstanding problem along the last century and has captured the attention of scientists, technicians and administrations, for the dramatic consequences sometimes occurred due to soil instability, steep slopes, rainfall regimes and wildfires. Hidromorfological and pedological alterations causing exceptional floods and accelerated erosion processes has therefore been studied, identifying the cause in the loss of landscape heterogeneity. Through the disappearance of agricultural works and drainage maintenance, slope stability has resulted severely affected. The mechanization of agriculture has caused the displacement of vines, olives and corks trees cultivation in terraced areas along the Mediterranean catchment towards more economically suitable areas. On the one hand, land use and management changes have implicated sociological changes as well, transforming areas inhabited by agricultural communities into deserted areas where the colonization of disorganized spontaneous vegetation has buried a valuable rural patrimony. On the other hand, lacking of planning and management of the abandoned areas has produced badlands and infertile soils due to wildfire and high erosion rates strongly degrading the whole ecosystems. In other cases, after land abandonment a process of soil regeneration has been recorded. Investigations have been conducted in a part of NE Spain where extended areas of terraced soils previously cultivated have been abandoned in the last century. The selected environments were semi-abandoned vineyards, semi-abandoned olive groves, abandoned stands of cork trees, abandoned stands of pine trees, scrubland of Cistaceaea, scrubland of Ericaceaea, and pasture. The research work was focused on the study of most relevant physical, chemical and biological soil properties, as well as runoff and erosion under soils with different plant cover to establish the abandonment effect on soil quality, due to the peculiarity and vulnerability of these soils with a much reduced depth. The period of observation was carried out from autumn 2009 to autumn 2010. The sediment concentration of soil erosion under vines was recorded as 34.52 g/l while under pasture it was 4.66 g/l. In addition, the soil under vines showed the least amount of organic matter, which was 12 times lower than all other soil environments. The carbon dioxide (CO2) and total glomalin (TG) ratio to soil organic carbon (SOC) in this soil was 0.11 and 0.31 respectively. However, the soil under pasture contained a higher amount of organic matter and showed that the CO2 and TG ratio to SOC was 0.02 and 0.11 respectively indicating that the soil under pasture better preserves the soil carbon pool. A similar trend was found in the intermediate soils in the sequence of land use change and abandonment. Soil structural stability increased in the two soil fractions investigated (0.25-2.00 mm, 2.0-5.6 mm) especially in those soils that did not undergo periodical perturbations like wildfires. Soil quality indexes were obtained by using relevant physical and chemical soil parameters. Factor analysis carried out to study the relationship between all soil parameters allowed to related variables and environments and identify those areas that better contribute to soil quality towards others that may need more attention to avoid further degradation processes ​
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