Latitudinal effect of vegetation on erosion rates identified along western South America

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Science  20 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6484, pp. 1358-1361
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz0840

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Erosion-vegetation interactions

The impact of vegetation on erosion rates is hard to gauge. Although vegetation can hold soils in place mechanically, root systems can also loosen soils or even help to fracture rock. These processes can increase erosion, especially because areas of heavy vegetation tend to be in areas with high precipitation rates. Starke et al. tackled this issue using a large set of observations that span 3500 km of the Andes mountain range. They found a complex set of interactions where increasing vegetation decreases erosion in more arid regions but can accelerate erosion in vegetation dense regions.

Science, this issue p. 1358


Vegetation influences erosion by stabilizing hillslopes and accelerating weathering, thereby providing a link between the biosphere and Earth’s surface. Previous studies investigating vegetation effects on erosion have proved challenging owing to poorly understood interactions between vegetation and other factors, such as precipitation and surface processes. We address these complexities along 3500 kilometers of the extreme climate and vegetation gradient of the Andean Western Cordillera (6°S to 36°S latitude) using 86 cosmogenic radionuclide–derived, millennial time scale erosion rates and multivariate statistics. We identify a bidirectional response to vegetation’s influence on erosion whereby correlations between vegetation cover and erosion range from negative (dry, sparsely vegetated settings) to positive (wetter, more vegetated settings). These observations result from competing interactions between precipitation and vegetation on erosion in each setting.

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