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The causes and consequences of erosion

 

Erosion is the eating or wearing away of land features. It is caused by a variety of factors, some natural, others man-made. The consequences can be serious both for the natural world and for man himself.

The natural causes are weathering, water, ice, wind and change of temperature. The changes may be very gradual, sometimes taking millions of years and dating back to the major upheavals on the planet when the earth was very young. Wind and rain driving incessantly against sandstone, formed originally by immense pressures on early sea-beds and then lifted above sea-level by volcanic eruption or the clash of land-plates, wears the stone back into sand, thus creating beaches along the sea-shore. In the case of harder rock such as granite, surfaces are worn smooth.

Weathering also erodes exposed coastlines in temperate zones. Often cliffs and dunes simply disappear over perhaps a short period of two or three hundred years. The sea encroaches, and sometimes coastal villages are lost. There is written evidence of English villages having been lost under the waves.
 

The sea also plays its part in the erosion process. The Netherlands, facing the turbulent North Sea, have for centuries fought the battle against salt water encroachment due to erosion. Great dykes have been built to exclude the sea, and gradually the low-lying salt flats have been sweetened and fertilized for agriculture and bulb-growing. In another way, the sea also erodes rock fragments by friction due to the tides. The smooth pebbles on northern beaches are the result of their having rubbed together over millions of years.

The great ice-floes attached to the poles play a conspicuous part in regulating sea levels. In general, sea levels are thought to be rising, though opinions vary as to the rate. At present, many fear what is called the 'greenhouse effect', i.e. the punching of holes in the ozone layer due to industrial gases and the use of CFCs. Nations are beginning to agree to eliminate these hazards. The result might be the melting of the ice-caps causing a devastating rise in sea levels. This would put much of the land in temperate climates under sea-water.

Slow-moving glaciers also have an effect. Their immense power pulverizes any rocks in their path. The piles of shale at the foot of many mountains resulted from the pressure of glaciers millions of years ago.

Wind is probably the greatest single cause of erosion. Where there is no protection given to the soil, and after a period of drought or intense heat, the soil crumbles to dust and literally blows away. Man himself can either let this happen or take steps to prevent it. Rain, of course, has a dual effect. In some circumstances it can wash away the soil into river beds, where it is carried down to estuaries, often silting them so that they require dredging. Inland, and on flat territory, rain holds the soil together. Yet rain depends on trees and foliage which cause clouds to precipitate. The central plains of North America from time to time become dust bowls, simply because all vegetation has been cleared in favor of large scale, economic cereal growing. The same clearance of rain forests goes on currently in South America in favor of cash crops. Conservationists throughout the world are resisting these clearances, but are fighting vested interests.

The rain forests support a wide variety of animals, birds, insects and plants, many of which can only exist in their present habitat. This is an added reason for resisting deforestation. Sooner or later when the forests have gone the climate will change from not and humid to dry. The soil will crumble and erode.

Tribes dependent on land for grazing and agriculture lose their herds, flocks and food. They become nomads or refugees and are exposed to epidemic and starvation. Erosion can cause much human suffering.

Even in temperate countries large-scale farming is now being discouraged, for the foregoing reasons. In England such farming has meant the destruction of hedges, ditches and trees, aging spoiling traditional landscapes and the habitats of bird, animal and insect species.

Some erosion is natural and inevitable. Much however is caused by man. Long term conservation is essential if man is to pass on a beautiful planet to future generations.

     
     
     
     
     
     
     
 
 

 

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