Potential impacts of climate change on soil erosion vulnerability across the conterminous United States
Rainfall runoff erosivity (R) is one key climate factor that controls water erosion. Quantifying the effects of climate change-induced erosivity change is important for identifying critical regions prone to soil erosion under a changing environment. In this study we first evaluate the changes of R from 1970 to 2090 across the United States under nine climate conditions predicted by three general circulation models for three emissions scenarios (A2, A1B, and B1) from the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Then, we identify watersheds that are most vulnerable to future climate change in terms of soil erosion potential. We develop a novel approach to evaluate future trends of R magnitude and variance by incorporating both the rate of change with time as well as the level of agreement between climatic projections. Our results show that mean decadal R values would increase with time according to all nine climatic projections considered between 1970 and 2090. However, these trends vary widely spatially. In general, catchments in the northeastern and northwestern United States are characterized by strong increasing trends in R, while the trends in the midwestern and southwestern United States are either weak or inconsistent among the nine climatic projections considered. The northeastern and northwestern United States will likely experience a significant increase in annual variability of R (i.e., increase in extreme events). Conversely the variability of R is unlikely to change in large areas of the Midwest. At the watershed scale (8-digit Hydrologic Unit Code), the mean vulnerability to erosion scores vary between -0.12 and 0.35 with a mean of 0.04. The five hydrologic regions with the highest mean vulnerability to erosion are 5, 6, 2, 1, and 17, with values varying between 0.06 and 0.09. These regions occupy large areas of Ohio, Maryland, Indiana, Vermont, and Illinois, with mean erosion vulnerability score statewide above 0.08. Future watershed management aiming at reducing soil erosion should focus on areas with the highest soil erosion vulnerability identified by this study.