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Soil Themes > Soil Erosion > Italy > Assessment in Forestlands


Climate change, globalization and the growing demand for raw materials result in an increasing demand for forest resources at a worldwide scale. In Europe, resources exploitation in terms of forest timber harvesting is the most widespread management practice (Eurostat, 2009). It is estimated that about 420 million m3 of roundwood forests were harvested in the European Union (EU-27) in 2010 to meet the domestic timber demand (Eurostat, 2011).

In recent years, an increasing number of studies based on forest science have addressed the ecological sustainability of wood harvesting in the European forests (Reference). Locally, the European forest is cleared, degraded and fragmented by timber harvesting, man-made fires and land-use conversion (Cochrane, 2003; Richards & Tucker, 1988; Williams, 2000). The side effects of tree harvesting activities are major environmental issues.

The temporary absence of a vegetation cover directly exposes the forest soils to the impacts of rainfall events (Morgan, 2005). This alters the natural water balance of the forestlands increasing the magnitude of down-slope soil mobilization (water soil erosion). The occurrence of accelerated soil erosion processes associated with forest harvesting were found in several European locations including England, Italy among others (Stott et al., 2001).

Facing the fact that the forestland and forest soils are among the most valuable and strategically most multifunctional natural assets, the European Union and the United Nations strongly encourage policies targeting the forest resources conservation . The challenge for the immediate future is to assure that the forests meet the various humans needs and, at the same time, to minimize the negative effects of the human interference on the forests (safeguarding forest and soil biodiversity, recreational needs, and ecosystem services). Such ambitious undertaking, however, requires in-depth knowledge about the current status of European forests as an important precondition. An adequate knowledge about forest harvesting districts that are involved in the wood supply chain and related soil erosion processes needs to be archived.

Key Problem and Research Aim

Up-to-date the erosion processes deriving from forestry activities and wildfires were not considered in our modeling (Van der Knijff et al., 2000, Grimm et al., 2001, Grimm et al., 2003, Jones et al., 2003, Bosco et al., 2014). As result, the forests have been considered immutable environments where soil erosion processes have not been adequately represented. The current state of the art in erosion research lacks knowledge about where and how water soil erosion occurs in the Europe forests poses a threat to forest ecosystems (including water bodies receiving pollutants). In addition, the lack of research in spatial and temporal patterns of soil erosion in forestlands, particularly at the landscape to regional scales, prevents national and European institutions from taking actions aimed at an effective mitigating of land degradation.

The overall aim of the study is to perform a risk assessment of human-induced accelerated soil erosion processes in the forestland sectors of a test area of the European Union. The selected physiographic unit is Italy, which falls in a Mediterranean region particularly prone to erosion. In Italy, forestland is the second most common type of land use covering about 87,592 km² (29% of the land surface), out of which 42% is currently managed as coppice forest (INFC, 2007). As a result, a vast area of the country, mostly located in mountainous areas characterized by heavy bursts of intensive and erosive rainfalls that hit the steep slopes (van der Knijff et al., 1999), is subject to operations of wood extraction. For some of these forest landscapes this practice of land resource exploitation may result in irremediable damages.

To achieve this aim, the spatio-temporal pattern and dynamic changes of the specific soil erosion risks of the Italian forests will be investigated by means of a spatially distributed modeling approach. To enable the modeling phase of soil erosion, initially, the vegetation changes that are the direct cause of the instability in the natural balance and thus responsible for the accelerated erosion process need be carefully mapped.

Conceptual schema

From a technical point of view, the proposed research project targets the following three general objectives which, chronologically, correspond to distinct stages of the project advancement:


This study presents a thorough approach, based on the application of multi-spectral remote sensing Landsat imagery, to determine human-induced forest cover change in Italy during the decade 2002–2011. A total of 785.6 ×1 04 ha of forestland was mapped using the main forest classes described within the CORINE land cover 2006 database (3.11 – broad-leaved forest; 3.12 – coniferous forest; 3.13 – mixed forest). The approach employs multi-temporal Landsat imagery to determine large-scale spatiotemporal variations in forest cover with a high degree of precision. The semi-automated procedure is based on Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) pixel-oriented image differencing technique. The results were validated and rectified as a result of on-screen visual interpretation, whereby all the false-positive forest changes that were incorrectly mapped during the automatic procedure were identified and removed. The derived high-resolution data of forest cover change show that 317,535 ha (4.04% of the total forest area in Italy) were harvested during the period under review. The 125,272 individual clear-cut areas identified are mainly located within protected areas of the European Natura 2000 network. The outcome of this study is a publicly accessible database that can encourage further studies in the framework of international biodiversity and soil protection conventions.

Download the Data

To get access to the data, please compile the online form; instructions will then follow how to download the data. Forest harvesting layers (annual).

More Information – Links (Citations)

Forest Harvest

Figure 1: Forest change from July 2002 to July 2011. Note that the forest changes (brown) may be enhanced in size because of the small scale of the map.
Figure 2: Forest change area at province level (EU NUTS-3 units).


Pasquale Borrelli,
European Commission, Joint Research Centre
Email: , Tel: 0039 0332-783021

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