Erosion is distinguished from weathering, which is the decomposition of rock and particles through processes where no movement is involved, although the two processes may be concurrent.
Erosion is an intrinsic natural process but in many places it is increased by human land use. Poor land use practices include deforestation, overgrazing, unmanaged construction activity and road or trail building. However, improved land use practices can limit erosion, using techniques like terrace-building and tree planting.
A certain amount of erosion is natural and, in fact, healthy for the ecosystem. For example, gravels continuously move downstream in watercourses. Excessive erosion, however, does cause problems, such as receiving water sedimentation, ecosystem damage and outright loss of soil.
Factor which cause rates of erosion to vary is a combination of several different things, including the amount and intensity of precipitation, the texture of the soil, the gradient of the slope, ground cover from vegetation, rocks, land use, and possibility of erosion from speed of a stream. The first factor, rain, is the agent for erosion, but the degree of erosion is governed by other factors.
The first three factors can remain fairly constant over time. In general, given the same kind of vegetative cover, you expect areas with high-intensity precipitation, sandy or silty soils and steep slopes to be the most erosive. Soils with a greater proportion of clay that receive less intense precipitation and are on gentle slopes tend to erode less. But here, the impact of atmospheric sodium on erodibility of clay should be considered.
The factor that is most subject to change is the amount and type of ground cover. In an undisturbed forest the mineral soil is protected a litter layer and an organic layer. These two layers protect the soil by absorbing the impact of rain drops. These layers and the underlaying soil in a forest is porous and highly permeable to rainfall. Typically only the most severe rainfall events will lead to overland flow in a forest. If the trees are removed by fire or logging infiltration rates remain high and erosion low to the degree the forest floor remains intact. Severe fires can led to significantly increase erosion if followed by heavy rainfall. In the case of construction or road building when the litter layer is removed or compacted the susceptibility of the soil to erosion is greatly increased.
Roads are especially likely to cause increased rates of erosion because, in addition to removing ground cover, they can significantly change drainage patterns. A road that has a lot of rock and one that is "hydrologically invisible" (that gets the water off the road as quickly as possible, mimicking natural drainage patterns) has the best chance of not causing increased erosion.
Many human activities remove vegetation from an area, making the soil easily eroded. Logging can cause increased erosion rates due to soil compaction, exposure of mineral soil, for example roads and landings. However it is the removal of or compromise to the forest floor not the removal of the canopy that can led to erosion. This is because rain drops striking tree leaves coalesces with other rain drops creating larger drops. When theses larger drops fall (called throughfall) they again may reach terminal velocity and strike the ground with more energy then had they fallen in the open. Terminal velocity of rain drops is reached in about 8 meters. Because forest canopies are usually higher then this leaf drop can regain terminal velocity. However the intact forest floor, with it layers of leaf litter and organic matter, absorb the impact of the rainfall. (Stuart and Edwards)
Heavy grazing can reduce vegetation enough to increase erosion. Changes in the kind of vegetation in an area can also affect erosion rates. Different kinds of vegetation affect infiltration rates of rain into the soil. Forested areas have higher infiltration rates, so precipitation will result in less surface runoff, which erodes. Instead much of the water will go in subsurface flows, which are generally less erosive. Leaf litter and low shrubs are an important part of the high infiltration rates of forested systems, the removal of which can increase erosion rates. Leaf litter also shelters the soil from the impact of falling raindrops, which is a significant agent of erosion. Vegetation can also change the speed of surface runoff flows, so grasses and shrubs can also be instrumental in this aspect.
One of the main causes of erosive soil loss in the year 2006 is the result of slash and burn treatment of tropical forest. When the total ground surface is stripped of vegetation and then seared of all living organisms, the upper soils are vulnerable to both wind and water erosion. In a number of regions of the earth, entire sectors of a country have been rendered unproductive. For example, on the Madagascar high central plateau, comprising approximately ten percent of that country's land area, virtually the entire landscape is sterile of vegetation, with gully erosive furrows typically in excess of 50 meters deep and one kilometer wide. Shifting cultivation is a farming system which sometimes incorporates the slash and burn method in some regions of the world.
When land is overused by animal activities (including humans), there can be mechanical erosion and also removal of vegetation leading to erosion. In the case of the animal kingdom, this effect would become material primarily with very large animal herds stampeding such as the Blue Wildebeast on the Serengeti plain. Even in this case there are broader material benefits to the ecosystem, such as continuing the survival of grasslands, that are indigenous to this region. This effect may be viewed as anomalous or a problem only when there is a significant imbalance or overpopulation of one species.
In the case of human use, the effects are also generally linked to overpopulation. For when large numbers of hikers use trails or extensive off road vehicle use occurs, erosive effects often follow, arising from vegetation removal and furrowing of foot traffic and off road vehicle tires. These effects can also accumulate from a variety of outdoor human activities, again simply arising from too many people using a finite land resource.
One of the most serious and long-running water erosion problems worldwide is in the People's Republic of China, on the middle reaches of the Yellow River and the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. From the Yellow River, over 1.6 billion tons of sediment flow each year into the ocean. The sediment originates primarily from water erosion in the Loess Plateau region of the northwest.
Soil erosion in forests or grasslands in flat terrain are as low as 0.001 to 2 tons per hectare annually (t/ha/yr). In areas with steep terrain with similar vegetation erosion rates may be 1- 5 t/ha/yr.