Articles | Volume 14, issue 7
Research article
16 Jul 2014
Research article |  | 16 Jul 2014

Soil erosion in an avalanche release site (Valle d'Aosta: Italy): towards a winter factor for RUSLE in the Alps

S. Stanchi, M. Freppaz, E. Ceaglio, M. Maggioni, K. Meusburger, C. Alewell, and E. Zanini

Abstract. Soil erosion in Alpine areas is mainly related to extreme topographic and weather conditions. Although different methods of assessing soil erosion exist, the knowledge of erosive forces of the snow cover needs more investigation in order to allow soil erosion modeling in areas where the snow lays on the ground for several months. This study aims to assess whether the RUSLE (Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation) empirical prediction model, which gives an estimation of water erosion in t ha yr−1 obtained from a combination of five factors (rainfall erosivity, soil erodibility, topography, soil cover, protection practices) can be applied to mountain areas by introducing a winter factor (W), which should account for the soil erosion occurring in winter time by the snow cover. The W factor is calculated from the ratio of Ceasium-137 (137Cs) to RUSLE erosion rates. Ceasium-137 is another possible way of assessing soil erosion rates in the field. In contrast to RUSLE, it not only provides water-induced erosion but integrates all erosion agents involved. Thus, we hypothesize that in mountain areas the difference between the two approaches is related to the soil erosion by snow. In this study we compared 137Cs-based measurement of soil redistribution and soil loss estimated with RUSLE in a mountain slope affected by avalanches, in order to assess the relative importance of winter erosion processes such as snow gliding and full-depth avalanches. Three subareas were considered: DS, avalanche defense structures, RA, release area, and TA, track area, characterized by different prevalent winter processes. The RUSLE estimates and the 137Cs redistribution gave significantly different results. The resulting ranges of W evidenced relevant differences in the role of winter erosion in the considered subareas, and the application of an avalanche simulation model corroborated these findings. Thus, the higher rates obtained with the 137Cs method confirmed the relevant role of winter soil erosion. Despite the limited sample size (11 points), the inclusion of a W factor in RUSLE seems promising for the improvement of soil erosion estimates in Alpine environments affected by snow movements.

Final-revised paper