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Trees are more efficient than shrubs at preventing wind-induced soil erosion

At present, revegetation is one of the main methods for limiting wind-induced erosion in arid regions. INRA and CNRS researchers have developed a novel way to model how the presence of vegetation affects such erosion. Their results show that trees, as compared to shrubs, are more effective windbreaks and thus afford greater protection to soils. The model shows promise in helping to describe how semiarid regions are affected by wind-induced erosion, which is the source of numerous environmental problems. This research was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research—Earth Surface in February of 2014.

Wind erosion on sand dunes. © INRA, CAUVIN Brigitte
Updated on 07/22/2015
Published on 07/31/2014

During wind-induced soil erosion, the wind intermittently transports and deposits sand particles—causing them to “leap”—a process referred to as saltation. When the particles come in contact with the ground, atmospheric dust is generated. Saltation can damage crops by abrading, burying, or uprooting them. Also, in desert regions, it results in the formation of sand dunes. At local scales, the dust generated by saltation reduces the fertility of agricultural lands; at a global scale, it affects cloud formation and the earth’s energy budget. Atmospheric dust can also have a negative impact on human health because it penetrates into people’s lungs, influences the spread of potential pathogens, and impacts the dispersal of pollutants. At present, revegetation is one of the main methods used to fight wind-induced erosion in areas experiencing desertification. However, it remains unclear how vegetation type and arrangement affect revegetation efficacy. Furthermore, current models of wind-induced erosion fail to adequately describe what is occurring in sparsely vegetated landscapes because they only roughly represent wind dynamics.

A new means of modelling how the presence of vegetation affects erosion

INRA and CNRS researchers have developed an innovative means of modelling saltation: they recreated the detailed, instantaneous dynamics of wind gusts and the several million sand particles they transport, as well as the interactions taking place among wind, sand, soil, and vegetation. The researchers had built an initial version of this model that focused exclusively on the oscillating movement of sand particles being carried along a beach by a strong wind. They then built a second version of the model that included vegetation and were able to show that, controlling for surface type, trees were better than shrubs at reducing wind-induced erosion. Although shrubs do impede the movement of sand particles, they act at a smaller scale. Trees serve as windbreaks at a larger scale and thus have a greater relative impact. Furthermore, the model revealed that the way in which vegetation is oriented relative to wind direction has a significant effect on wind-induced erosion.

The first step in characterizing wind-induced soil erosion in semiarid regions

Semiarid regions are a major source of atmospheric dust; however, in contrast to deserts, they are characterized by sparse, seasonal vegetation. The results of this research will make it easier to quantify the dust emissions produced by these regions. This is crucial because the fertility of agricultural lands is predicted to decline even further in the future as a result of climate change and anthropogenic land use shifts. Indeed, these regions are situated in climatic transition zones, where the intensity and frequency of precipitation changes, which subsequently affects vegetation cover and wind-induced soil erosion. They also occur in parts of the world where population growth is rapid, which is leading to dramatic changes in land use, such as the spread and intensification of farming.


S. Dupont, G. Bergametti, and S. Simoëns, Modeling Aeolian erosion in presence of vegetation. Journal of Geophysical Research Earth Surface, Vol. 119, pp168-187, DOI:10.1002/2013JF002875, February 2014.