Assessing spatial patterns of soil erosion in a high-latitude rangeland

Richard T. Streeter, Nick Cutler

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High‐latitude areas are experiencing rapid change: we therefore need a better understanding of the processes controlling soil erosion in these environments. We used a spatiotemporal approach to investigate soil erosion in Svalbarðstunga, Iceland (66°N, 15°W), a degraded rangeland. We used three complementary datasets: (a) high‐resolution unmanned‐aerial vehicle imagery collected from 12 sites (total area ~0.75 km2); (b) historical imagery of the same sites; and (c) a simple, spatially‐explicit cellular automata model. Sites were located along a gradient of increasing altitude and distance from the sea, and varied in erosion severity (5–47% eroded). We found that there was no simple relationship between location along the environmental gradient and the spatial characteristics of erosion. Patch‐size frequency distributions lacked a characteristic scale of variation, but followed a power‐law distribution on five of the 12 sites. Present total eroded area is poorly related to current, site‐scale levels of environmental stress, but the number of small erosion patches did reflect site‐level stress. Small (<25 m2) erosion patches clustered near large patches. The model results suggested that the large‐scale patterns observed likely arise from strong, local interactions, which mean that erosion spreads from degraded areas. Our findings suggest that contemporary erosion patterns reflect historical stresses, as well as current environmental conditions. The importance of abiotic processes to the growth of large erosion patches and their relative insensitivity to current environmental conditions makes it likely that the total eroded area will continue to increase, despite a warming climate and reducing levels of grazing pressure.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLand Degradation & Development
VolumeEarly View
Early online date10 Mar 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Mar 2020


  • UAV
  • Grazing
  • Patch-size distributions
  • Soil erosion
  • Iceland
  • Sheep
  • Cellular automata


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