Soil at JRC > SOER2010 (State of Environment Report 2010) > Section 2. State and Trends
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Section 0. Summary
Section 1. Introduction
Section 2. State and Trends
Section 3. Impacts
Section 4. Outlook 2020
Section 5. Response
Determining the state and trends of soil functions
Soil functions occur under our feet and often involve microbial activity and chemical reactions. Subtle variations in soil characteristics over short distances can significantly affect how the soil operates due to soil complexity, spatial variability and scale issues. This can lead to uncertainties in making wide-ranging representative statements on the state of soil in general
In some instances, the degradation of soil functions can be seen at the land surface. Examples include poor crop yields due to poor soil management or pools of standing water at the entrance to fields where the traffic of heavy agricultural machinery has led to subsoil compaction and impeded drainage. However, in most cases, evidence for the state of soil functions has to be collected painstakingly through intensive field sampling and laboratory analysis. The development of effective indicators for different soil functions is a challenge.
Another issue that hampers pan-European assessment of soil state is the lack of a legal requirement to collect such information in a harmonised manner or even at all. While most European countries have mapped the soils on their territory that are used for agricultural Another issue that hampers pan-European assessment of soil state is the lack of a legal requirement to collect such information in a harmonised manner or even at all. While most European countries have mapped the soils on their territory that are used for agricultural and forest production, many of these surveys are now several decades old, not updated and may not contain the data required to answer current questions such as their potential as carbon sinks, the impacts of pollutants on soil micro-fauna, the leaching of phosphorus due to over-fertilisation or the state of environmental functions. Some countries have detailed and wide-ranging soil monitoring networks which measure a number of parameters relating to soil quality. However, many of these networks reflect national priorities and standards, making the comparison of their results with those of other countries difficult. Many countries have no provision for the systematic collection of soil data.
Consequently, there is a difficulty in applying a bottom-up approach of collating reports from the individual countries to derive a harmonised evaluation for Europe. While there are increasing examples of soil-function maps at the local level, pan-European assessments are rare. As a result, many of the appraisals of soil functions at the European level are provided largely through models using assumptions about the ability of specific soil types to provide certain functions. In a simplistic example, sandy soils allow the easy drainage of surface water but crops grown on these soils can suffer during periods of drought as the water storage capacity is low. The converse is generally true for clay soils. However, all such models are simplifications of the real world, are data intensive and are still being refined.
Photo 2.1: Soils provide a myriad of life-critical, environmental and socio-economic functions: the most recognised is the production of food, fibre and wood. Without fertile soil, life as we know it would not be possible. © Erika Micheli
Determining the state and trends of threats to soil
Widespread soil degradation, leading to a decline in the ability of soil to carry out its ecosystem services, is caused largely by non-sustainable uses of the land over a long time span. This has also marked local, regional, European and global impacts. Soil degradation contributes to food shortages, higher commodity prices, desertification and ecosystem destruction. Society has a duty to ensure that the soil resources within their territories are managed appropriately and sustainably. The character of the major threats to soil has not changed significantly since the last assessment (EEA, 2005a). The following sections outline the state and trends of the main soil degradation processes in Europe and show that, while the situation is variable, many soil degradation processes are accelerating in many parts of Europe (EEA, 2005b), often exacerbated by inappropriate human activities and widely varying approaches to tackling degradation processes.
Soil organic matter is essentially derived from residual plant and animal material, transformed (humified) by microbes and decomposed under the influence of temperature, moisture and ambient soil conditions. Soil organic matter (SOM) plays a major role in maintaining soil functions because of its influence on soil structure and stability, water retention, soil biodiversity, and as a source of plant nutrients. The primary constituent of SOM is soil organic carbon [link 4].
- State of soil organic carbon levels: Around 45 % of the
mineral soils in Europe have low or very low organic
carbon content (0–2 %) and 45 % have a medium
content (2–6 %) (Rusco et al., 2001). Low levels exist in
particular in the southern countries of Europe: 74 %
of the land in Southern Europe is covered by soils that
have less than 2 % of organic carbon in the topsoil
(0–30cm) (Zdruli et al., 2004). However, low levels of organic matter are not restricted to southern Europe as
areas of low soil organic matter can be found almost
everywhere, including in some parts of more northern
countries such as France, the United Kingdom,
Germany, Norway and Belgium.
Excess nitrogen in the soil from high fertiliser application rates and/or low plant uptake can cause an increase in mineralization of organic carbon, which in turn, leads to an increased loss of carbon from soils. Maximum nitrogen values are reached in areas with high livestock populations, regions of intensive fruit and vegetable cropping, or cereal production with imbalanced fertilisation practices. While in extreme situations, the surplus soil nitrogen can be as high as 300 kg N ha-1 (EC, 2002)¸ estimates show that 15 % of land in the EU-27 exhibits a surplus in excess of 40 kg N ha-1 (for reference, while rates vary from crop to crop, the IRENA Indicator 08 — Mineral fertiliser consumption — estimates average application rates of nitrogen fertiliser for EU-15 in 2000 ranged from 8–179 kg N ha-1 (EEA, 2005a)).
Map 2.1 Variations in topsoil organic carbon content (%) across Europe
Note: The darker regions correspond to higher values of organic matter. The darkest colours, especially in Ireland, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia denote peatlands.
Source: JRC: Jones et al., 2005.
Map 2.2 Estimated nitrogen surplus across Europe, 2005
Note: Estimated nitrogen surplus (the difference between inputs and uptake by crops, meat or milk production) for the year 2005 across Europe. Surplus nitrogen in the soil as a result of excessive application rates and/or low plant uptake can cause an increase in the mineralization of organic carbon, which in turn, leads to an increased depletion of carbon from soils.
Source: JRC: Bouraoui et al., 2009.
There is growing realisation of the role of soil, in particular peat, as a store of carbon and its role in managing terrestrial fluxes of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Other than in tropical ecosystems, soil contains about twice as much organic carbon as above-ground vegetation. Soil organic carbon stocks in the EU-27 are estimated to be around 75 billion tonnes of carbon (C), of which about 50 % is in Sweden, Finland and the United Kingdom because of their large areas of peatlands and forest soils (Schils et al., 2008).
Peat soils represent the highest concentration of organic matter in all soils [link 5]. Peatlands are currently under threat from unsustainable practices such as drainage, clearance for agriculture, fires, climate change and extraction. The current area of peatland in the EU is estimated at more than 318 000 km2, mainly in the northern latitudes. While there is no harmonised exhaustive inventory of peat stocks in Europe, the CLIMSOIL report (Schils et al., 2008) estimated that more than 65 000 km2 or 20 % of all peatlands, have been drained for agriculture, almost 90 000 km2 or 28 % for forestry and 2 273 km2 or 0.7 % for peat extraction.
Forest Ecosystems (CNTER) project assessed carbon fluxes and pools for 400 European forest sites and found that sequestration rates in the soils of central European forests were around 190 kg C ha-1 yr-1 which converted to a European scale would be equivalent to around 13 Mt C yr-1 (Gundersen et al., 2006).
- Trends in soil organic carbon levels: In general, soils
lose carbon through cultivation and disturbance.
Changes in soil organic carbon content (SOC) are
expected to be faster in topsoil (0–30 cm) than in
deeper soil. An assessment of carbon stocks is a
reliable approach to provide an indication of changes
in organic matter. Comparisons of carbon stocks
should always take into consideration the soil type
and land management practices.
Except for the rapid removal of SOC by erosion and landslides, changes in SOC levels as a result of the intensification of agriculture, deforestation or conversion of grassland to arable land are slow processes. This makes changes difficult to assess. Some recent studies suggest that SOC in European agricultural land is decreasing (Vleeshouwers and Verhagen, 2002; Sleutel et al., 2003). Bellamy et al. (2005) used data from the National Soil Inventory of England and Wales obtained between 1978 and 2003 to show that an average of 0.6 % of the organic carbon content was lost per year from soils across England and Wales over that period. Similar trends were observed in France, Belgium and Sweden (Saby et al., 2008; Goidts et al., 2009) and it appears that the rate of change is proportional to the initial soil organic carbon content. SOM decline is also of particular concern in the Mediterranean region (Jones et al., 2005) where high temperatures and droughts could accelerate the decomposition of soil organic matter.
Several factors are responsible for a decline in SOM and many of them relate to human activity: conversion of grassland, forests and natural vegetation to arable land; deep ploughing of arable soils; drainage, fertiliser use; tillage of peat soils; crop rotations with reduced proportion of grasses; soil erosion; and wild fires (Kibblewhite et al., 2005). High soil temperatures and moist conditions accelerate soil respiration and thus increase CO2 emissions (Brito et al., 2005).
Comparisons of results from the recently completed Biosoils project, carried out under the Forest Focus Regulation, with previous pan-European forest surveys should provide new information on trends in soil organic carbon levels in European forests (JRC, 2010a).
Map 2.3 Changes in soil organic carbon content across England and Wales between 1978 and 2003
Source: Bellamy et al., 2005.
Erosion is the wearing away of the land surface by water [link 6] and wind [link 7], primarily due to inappropriate land management, deforestation, overgrazing, forest fires and construction activities. Erosion rates are very sensitive to climate, land use, soil texture, slope, vegetation cover and rainfall patterns as well as to detailed conservation practice at field level. With the very slow rate of soil formation, any soil loss of more than 1 t ha-1 yr-1 can be considered as irreversible within a time span of 50–100 years (Huber et al., 2008) [link 8].
- State of soil erosion by water: Soil erosion by water is one of the most widespread forms of soil degradation in Europe [link 9] affecting an estimated 105 million ha, or 16 % of Europe's total land area (excluding the Russian Federation; EEA, 2003). No harmonised measure of actual soil erosion rates exist for the European continent. To date, the only harmonised Europe-wide estimates of soil erosion by water have been provided by the PESERA project (Gobin and Govers, 2003) [link 10]. However, issues with some input datasets gave rise to over- and under-estimates of erosion rates in certain conditions.
- The Mediterranean region is particularly prone
to water erosion because it is subject to long dry
periods followed by heavy bursts of intense rainfall
on steep slopes with fragile soils. In some parts of
the Mediterranean region, erosion has reached a
state of irreversibility and in some places erosion
has practically ceased because there is no soil left.
Soil erosion in northern Europe is less pronounced
because of the reduced erosivity of the rain and
higher vegetation cover. However, arable land in
northern Europe is susceptible to erosion, especially
loamy soils after ploughing (Bielders et al., 2003).
One consequence of soil erosion is the transfer of
nutrients from agricultural land to water bodies,
which can result in the formation of toxic algal
Several researchers have reported soil erosion rates in Europe in excess of a critical 1 t ha-1 yr-1. Arden-Clarke and Evans (1993) noted that water erosion rates in the United Kingdom varied from 1–20 t ha-1 yr-1 with the higher rates being rare events. Other researchers frequently found rates between 10 and 20 t ha-1 yr-1 in mainland Europe (Lal, 1989; Richter, 1983). Losses of 20 to 40 t ha-1 yr-1 in individual storms, which may happen once every two or three years, are measured regularly in Europe, with losses of more than 100 t ha-1 yr-1 occurring in extreme events.
Map 2.4 Erosion rate in the Alps
Note: This map shows the predicted rate of soil erosion by water in the alpine territory. This map is derived from the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) model which calculates the actual sediment loss by soil erosion by taking into account rainfall erosivity, soil erodibility, slope characteristics, vegetation cover and land management practices aimed at erosion control. Areas at high risk of substantial soil erosion are shown by the orange and red colours (> more than 10 t ha-1 yr-1).
Source: Source: JRC.
Photo 2.2: Soil erosion by rill development on an agricultural field following an intensive rainstorm. Note that the eroded soil has been redeposited at the foot of the slope (brown area in the corner of the field). © P. N. Owens
- State of soil erosion by wind: Wind erosion is a serious problem in many parts of northern Germany, eastern Netherlands, eastern England and the Iberian Peninsula. Estimates of the extent of wind erosion range from 10 to 42 million ha of Europe's total land area, with around 1 million ha being categorised as severely affected (EEA, 2003; Lal, 1994). Recent work in eastern England reported mean wind erosion rates of 0.1–2.0 t ha1 yr1 (Chappell and Warren, 2003), though severe events are known to move much more than 10 tonnes of soil ha-1 yr-1 (Böhner et al., 2003). In a similar study, Goossens et al. (2001) found values of around 9.5 t ha-1 yr-1 for arable fields in Lower Saxony, Germany. Breshears et al. (2003) researched the relative importance of soil erosion by wind and by water in a Mediterranean ecosystem and found that wind erosion exceeded water erosion in shrubland (around 55 t ha-1 yr-1) and forest (0.62 t ha-1 yr-1) sites but not on grasslands (5.5 t ha-1 yr-1).
- Trends in erosion: Assessing trends in soil erosion rates across Europe is difficult due to a lack of systematic approaches and data. However, a number of assumptions can be made. Given the close link with meteorological events and land cover, erosion rates and extent are expected to reflect changing patterns of land use and climate change. The SOER 2010 land use assessment (EEA, 2010b) presents statistics on trends in land-use patterns obtained from analysing changes in the Corine land cover datasets. The marked conversion of permanent pasture to arable crops and increasing demands for bioenergy, mostly from maize and other crops, are expected to lead to an increase in the risk and rates of soil erosion. As a result of climate change, variations in rainfall patterns and intensity (e.g. droughts may remove protective plant cover, more intense rainfall events leading to the physical displacement of soil particles) may well result in increased erosion.
Soil compaction occurs when soil is subjected to pressure from the use of heavy machinery or dense stocking with grazing animals, especially under wet conditions [link 11].
- State of soil compaction: Estimates of the area
at risk of soil compaction vary. Some researchers
classify around 36 % of European subsoils as having
high or very high susceptibility to compaction (Van
Camp et al., 2004). Other sources report that 32 %
of soils are highly vulnerable and 18 % moderately
affected by compaction (Crescimanno et al., 2004).
Again other sources estimate 33 million hectares
being affected in total, corresponding to 4 % of the
European land surface (Van Ouwerkerk and Soane,
Map 2.5 The natural susceptibility fo soils to compaction
Note: This map shows the natural susceptibility of agricultural soils to compaction based on soil properties and water regime. Susceptibility to compaction does not mean that a soil is compacted. It is the likelihood of compaction occurring if subjected to factors that are known to cause compaction.
- Trends in compaction: Soil compaction is truly a hidden problem. Since the 1960s, the mechanisation of agriculture using heavy machinery has caused high stresses in the soil, even causing compaction deep in the subsoil below the plough layer (Van den Akker, 2004; Van den Akker & Schjønning, 2004). In recent years, arable farming machinery has improved and tyre inflation pressures have been lowered to minimize compaction, but overall the problem remains.
Soil sealing happens when agricultural, forest or other rural land is taken into the built environment. Sealing also occurs within existing urban areas through construction on residual inner-city green zones.
- State of soil sealing: An assessment of the Corine
land cover 2006 database shows that around 4 % of
agricultural or other non-developed land is built on.
This normally includes the removal of top soil layers and leads to the loss of important soil functions, such
as food production or water storage. On average,
built-up and other man-made areas take up around
4 % of the total area in EEA countries (data exclude
Greece, Switzerland and United Kingdom), but not
all of this is actually sealed (EEA, 2009).
Figure 2.1 Losses of agricultural areas to urbanisation
Note: Comparison of Corine land cover data for 1990 and 2000 shows an estimated loss of 970 000 ha of agricultural land for 20 EU Member States in this ten year period due to urbanisation. The rate of change is not the same across all countries. It should be noted that non-agricultural land is also consumed by urbanisation. These trends continue in the period 2000–2006 as shown in the SOER 2010 land use assessment (EEA, 2010b).
Figure 2.2 Relative losses of agricultural areas to urbanisation
Note: Comparison of Corine land cover data for 1990 and 2000 shows an estimated loss of 970 000 ha of agricultural land for 20 EU Member States in this ten year period due to urbanisation. The rate of change is not the same across all countries. It should be noted that non-agricultural land is also consumed by urbanisation. These trends continue in the period 2000– 2006 as shown in the SOER 2010 land use assessment (EEA, 2010b).
- Trends in soil sealing: Analysis carried out by the JRC showed that during 1990–2000, the sealed area in the EU-15 increased by 6 %, and productive soil continues to be lost to urban sprawl and transport infrastructures. Huber et al. (2008) provides an interesting insight into the development of baselines and thresholds to monitor soil sealing (see SOER 2010 Assessment on Land use for additional details on urbanisation).
Salt accumulation in soil, commonly referred to as salinisation, is a world-wide degradation process. While naturally saline soils exist in certain parts of Europe, the main concern is the increase in salt content in the soils resulting from human interventions such as inappropriate irrigation practices, use of salt-rich irrigation water and/or poor drainage conditions. Locally, the use of salt for de-icing can be an issue. The primary method of controlling soil salinity is to use excess water to flush the salts from the soil (in most cases where salinisation is a problem, this must inevitably be done with precious, high quality irrigation water) [link 12].
- State of salinisation. Thresholds to define saline soils are highly specific and depend on the type of salt and land use practices (Huber et al., 2008). Excess levels of salts are believed to affect around 3.8 million ha in Europe (EEA, 1995). While naturally saline soils occur in Spain, Hungary, Greece and Bulgaria, artificially induced salinisation is affecting significant parts of Sicily and the Ebro Valley in Spain and more locally in other parts of Italy, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, France and Slovakia.
- Trends in salinisation: While several studies show that salinisation levels in soils in countries such as Spain, Greece and Hungary are increasing (De Paz et al., 2004), systematic data on trends across Europe are not available.
Acidification describes the loss of base cations (e.g. calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium) through leaching and replacement by acidic elements, mainly soluble aluminium and iron complexes [Link 13]. Acidification is always accompanied by a decrease in a soil's capacity to neutralise acid, a process which is naturally irreversible when compared to human lifespans. In addition, the geochemical reaction rates of buffering substances in the soil are a crucial factor determining how much of the acidifying compounds are neutralized over a certain period. Acidifying substances in the atmosphere can have natural sources such as volcanism, however, the most significant ones in the context of this assessment are those that are due to anthropogenic emissions, mainly the result of fossil fuel combustion (e.g. in power plants, industry and traffic) and due to intensive agricultural activities (emissions of ammonia, NH3). Emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) to the atmosphere increase the natural acidity of rainwater, snow or hail. This is due to the formation of sulphuric and nitric acid (H2SO4, HNO3), both being strong acids. Ammonia contributes to the formation of particulate matter in the air, including ammonium (NH4 -). After deposition to ecosystems, the conversion of NH4 - to either amino acids or nitrate (NO3-) is an acidification process.
Furthermore, forestry and agriculture (due to biomass harvest) can lead to ecosystem acidification processes in soils. Such conditions can be found in the heathlands of north-western Europe where land management practices over centuries have led to soil acidification and erosion.
- State of soil acidification: While a number of studies
have produced reports of soil pH across Europe
(Salminen et al., 2005; JRC 2008), the systematic
monitoring of soil acidification across Europe is
generally lacking for non-forested soils. The EU has
a long-term objective of not exceeding critical loads
of acidity in order to protect Europe's ecosystems
from soil and water acidification. Though the interim
environmental objective ser for the year 2010 has
strictly speaking not been met, the improvements
are considerable (see the SOER 2010 air pollution
assessment (EEA, 2010c)). Soil acidification is closely
linked to water acidification and indicators of critical
loads [Link 14] can be used to show the exposure of soils
to acidification. Assuming full implementation
of current policies in 2010, critical load models
show that 84 % of European grid cells which had
exceedances in 1990 show a decline in exceeded area
of more than 50 % in 2010 (EEA, 2010a). However, a
recent assessment of 160 intensive forest monitoring
plots showed that critical limits for soil acidification
were substantially exceeded in a quarter of the
samples (Fischer et al., 2010).
Map 2.6 Principle areas of irrigation
Note: Map of irrigation intensity as % of 10 km × 10 km cells. The build up of salts in soil can occur over time wherever irrigation occurs as all water contains some dissolved salts. When crops use the water, the salts are left behind in the soil and eventually begin to accumulate unless there is sufficient seasonal rainfall (usually in the winter months) to flush out the salts. The dark blue colours areas indicate the main areas of irrigation across Europe, zones that are vulnerable to the accumulation of salts in the soil.
Source: FAO/AQUASTAT; Mulligan et al., 2006, map produced by JRC.
- Trends in acidification: As a result of regulation
and improved practices, emissions of acidifying
pollutants, particularly of SO2, have fallen in recent
years (see the SOER 2010 air pollution assessment,
EEA, 2010c). A number of local and regional studies
have shown that the impact of emissions reduction
schemes in many parts of the United Kingdom,
Germany and Scandinavia is especially evident with
acid levels declining, rapidly in some parts, or are
at least stabilising (Ruoho-Airola et al., 1998; Fowler
et al., 2007; Kowalik et al., 2007; Carey et al., 2008, EEA
2010). However, a recent assessment of 160 ICP-Forest
intensive forest monitoring plots showed that
between 2000 and 2006 there was little change in soil
acidification on the plots studied (Fischer et al., 2010).
In many areas, NOX and NH3 are now identified as the
main acidifying agents.
Map 2.7 Exceedance of critital loads of acidity
Note: Maps showing changes in the extent to which European ecosystems are exposed to acid deposition (i.e. where the critical load limits for acidification are exceeded. In 1980, areas with exceedances of critical loads of acidity (i.e. higher than 1 200 equivalent ha-1 year-1, shaded red) cover large parts of Europe. By 2010, the areas where critical loads are being exceeded have shrunk significantly campared to 1980. These improvements are expected to continue to 2020, although at a reduced rate.
Source: Deposition data collected by European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (EMAP); Maps drawn by Coordination Centre for Effects (CCE); EEA 2010.
Soil biodiversity: Soil biota play many fundamental roles in delivering key ecosystem goods and services, such as releasing nutrients from SOM, forming and maintaining soil structure and contributing to water storage and transfer in soil (Lavelle and Spain, 2001). Soil biodiversity is generally defined as the variability of living organisms in soil and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems (UN, 1992).
- State and trends of soil biodiversity: Little is known
about how soil life reacts to human activities but
there is evidence that soil organisms are affected by
SOM content, the chemical characteristics of soils
(e.g. the amount of soil contaminants or salts) and the
physical properties of soils such as porosity and bulk
density, both of which are affected by compaction or
sealing. Recent analysis has indicated that due to land
use change, habitat disruption, invasive species, soil
compaction, erosion, pollution and organic matter
decline, soil biodiversity levels are potentially under
high pressure in approximately 23 % of the surface
area of EU-25 (excluding Sweden and Finland) and
under very high pressure in 8 % on this area (Jeffery
et al., 2010).
Map 2.8 Distribution of nematodes
Note: Map denoting the distribution of Nematodes across Europe. It should be noted that such maps show the estimated number of species in certain biogeographic areas or countries and are indicative only as low values may also be due to lack of observations or evidence.
Source: Data provided from Fauna Europaea, www.faunaeur.org. Map produced by JRC (Jeffery et al., 2010).
Desertification: Prolonged droughts and more irregular precipitation, combined with unsustainable use of water and agricultural practices, could lead to desertification, defined by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) (UN, 1994) as 'land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities'. The most recent terminology adopted by the UNCCD includes 'Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought'. This reflects the widespread endorsement of the Convention also by countries that do not have drylands within their national territories. Within the EU, the following Member States consider themselves affected by desertification and are included in the Annex V of the UNCCD: Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain (UN, 2001).
- State of desertification: The DISMED assessment
(Domingues and Fons-Esteve, 2008) has shown that
sensitivity to desertification and drought is lower in
Europe than in neighbouring regions. The situation
is most serious in southern Portugal, much of Spain,
Sicily, south-eastern Greece and the areas bordering
the Black Sea in Bulgaria and Romania. In southern,
central and eastern Europe 8 % of the territory
currently shows very high or high sensitivity to desertication, corresponding to about 14 million ha,
and more than 40 million ha if moderate sensitivities
are included [link 15].
Map 2.9 Sensitivity to desertification
Note: Map from the DISMED project (Desertification Information System for the Mediterranean) showing the sensitivity to desertification and drought as defined by the sensitivity to desertification index (SDI) based on soil quality, climate and vegetation parameters.
Source: Domingues and Fons-Esteve, 2008.
- Trends in desertification: Many soil types in the Mediterranean region already exhibit many aspects of degradation (i.e. low SOC content, prone to erosion, low fertility) which, together with the hot, dry climate of the region hampers the recognition of desertification. While qualitative evidence for desertification appears to be prevalent through the region (e.g. increasing aridity, declining ground water levels), some recent observations suggest that the western Mediterranean is showing signs of a slight warming and of drier conditions while eastern parts are experiencing cooler, wetter conditions. However, other studies report opposing trends (Safriel, 2009).
Landslides are the gravitational movement of a mass of rock, earth or debris down a slope (Cruden, 1991) [link 16]
- State of landslides: There are no data on the total
area affected in Europe. The main landslide-prone
regions include mountain ranges such as the Alps,
Apennines, Pyrenees, Betics, Carpathians, and
Balkans; hilly areas on landslide-sensitive geological
formations for example in Belgium, Portugal and
Ireland; coastal cliffs and steep slopes for example
in the United Kingdom, France, Bulgaria, Norway
and Denmark; and gentle slopes on quick clay in
Scandinavia. Landslides are possibly the most serious
environmental issue in Italy. [link 17: See dramatic film of
a major landslide in Calabria, Italy, February 2010].
The development and harmonisation of national
landslide inventories should be a priority to serve as a database for research into causes and potential
Photo 2.3: Landslide scar in the Veneto Italy. © Javier Hervás
Many countries are creating comprehensive nationwide landslide inventory databases. So far European national databases contain more than 600 000 recorded events but the true number of landslides in each country is certainly much higher: Italy (> 485 000), Austria (> 25 000), Norway (> 19 500), the United Kingdom (> 14 000), Slovenia (> 6 600), Iceland (> 5 000), Croatia (> 1 500) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (> 1 500) (JRC 2010b). Estimates of the total affected area have been made for Italy (7 %), Slovakia (3.7 %) and Switzerland (8 %). However, neither landslide inventories nor landslide susceptibility or risk maps are harmonised among European countries, hampering comparison between different countries and implementation of consistent policies at the European level.
- Trends in landslides: While changes in land use,
land cover and climate (higher and more intense
rainfall patterns) will have an impact on landslides
there are no pan-European data on trends in landslide
distribution and impact. The national inventories
described above will eventually provide the necessary
spatio-temporal information to assess trends.
Landslides continue to affect people, property and
Map 2.10 Landslides in Italy
Note: Left map: Distribution of landslides in Italy with human consequences from AD 1300 to 2002. The size of the symbol indicates the intensity of the event; right map: Landslide susceptibility map of Italy.
Source: Left map: Guzzetti et al., 2005; right map: Günther et al., 2008.
Soil contamination: It is important to distinguish between local soil contamination (the result of intensive industrial activities or waste disposal [Link 18]) and diffuse soil contamination covering large areas [Link 19] (see also the SOER 2010 Consumption and the environment assessment (EEA, 2010d)).
- State of soil contamination: It is difficult to quantify
the real extent of local soil contamination as many European countries lack comprehensive inventories
together with a lack of EU legislation obliging
Member States to identify contaminated sites (the
Directive on the management of waste from extractive
industries (EC, 2006a) is an exception). Estimates
show that the number of sites in Europe where
potentially polluting activities are occurring, or have
taken place in the past, now stands at about 3 million
(EEA, 2007). Some locations, depending on their use
and the nature of the contaminant, may only require
limited measures to stabilise the dispersion of the
pollution or to protect vulnerable organisms from
pollution. However, it should be noted that around
250 000 sites may need urgent remediation. The main
causes of the contamination are past and present
industrial or commercial activities and the disposal
and treatment of waste (although these categories
vary widely across Europe). The most common
contaminants are heavy metals and mineral oil.
Data on diffuse contamination across Europe is even more limited than that for local contamination as there are no harmonised requirements to collect information. Rodriguez Lado et al. (2008) attempted to map the concentrations of eight heavy metals based on samples from the Forum of European Geological Surveys Geochemical database of 26 European countries, but noted mixed accuracies during the validation phase. Bouraoui et al. (2009) modelled fertilizer application rates across EU-25 and showed that approximately 15 % of the land surface experienced soil nitrogen surpluses in excess of 40 kg N ha-1. Proxy measurements such as the concentration of nitrates and phosphates in water bodies, including groundwater supplies, can be used as an indication of excessive nutrient application to soils.
- Trends in soil contamination: Due to improvements
in data collection, the number of recorded polluted
sites is expected to grow as investigations continue.
If current trends continue and without changes in
legislation, the numbers reported above are expected
to increase by 50 % by 2025 (EEA, 2007). There is some
evidence of progress in remediation of contaminated
sites, although the rate is slow (Figure 2.3). Around
80 000 sites have already been treated. In recent
years, many industrial plants have attempt to change
their production processes to produce less waste
while most countries now have legislation to control
industrial wastes and prevent accidents. In theory,
this should limit the introduction of pollutants into
the environment. However, recent events such as
the flooding of industrial sites in Germany during
extreme weather events leading to the dispersal of
organic pollutants. The collapse of the dam at the
aluminium plant in Hungary in October 2010 shows
that soil contamination can still occur from potentially polluting sites. Trends in the deposition of heavy
metals from industrial emissions are discussed in the
SOER 2010 air pollution assessment (EEA, 2010c).
While reports show that fertiliser sales have remained stable or fallen in EU-15 countries, consumption in Europe as a whole has continued to grow steadily during recent years, although it is too early to detect any impact of the recent economic crises (Eurostat, 2010a; FAO, 2008). However, a number of recent indicators (e.g. IRENA Gross Nitrogen Balance; EEA 2005a) and reports (EC, 2010) have noted that nitrate levels in water bodies across Europe have fallen markedly (in up to 70 % of monitored sites between 2004 and 2007). Given that the major source of nitrates in water bodies is runoff from agricultural land, one would expect to observe a similar situation in soil. If biofuel production becomes an important issue in the EU, this could lead to increased fertilizer applications and an increase in areas affected by diffuse contamination.
In EU-27, the total area under organic farming increased by 7.4 % between 2007 and 2008 and accounted for 4.1 % of the total utilised agricultural area (Eurostat, 2010b). Increased use of organic farming methods throughout Europe should result in an improvement of diffuse soil pollution from agro-chemicals. However, good agricultural practices should be followed to reduce the risk of pollution of water courses from manure applications.
Figure 2.3 Contaminated sites in Europe, 2006
Note: The graphs shows the status of identification and clean-up of contaminated sites in Europe as reported to the European Environment Agency through the Eionet priority data flows on contaminated sites. While trends vary across Europe, it is clear that the remediation of contaminated sites is still a significant undertaking.
Source: EEA, 2007.
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| European Commission - Joint
Institute for Environment and Sustainability
Marc Van Liedekerke(tel. +39-0332-785179)
Panos Panagos (tel. +39-0332-785574)