Articles | Volume 18, issue 9
Research article
26 Sep 2014
Research article |  | 26 Sep 2014

Soil erosion by snow gliding – a first quantification attempt in a subalpine area in Switzerland

K. Meusburger, G. Leitinger, L. Mabit, M. H. Mueller, A. Walter, and C. Alewell

Abstract. Snow processes might be one important driver of soil erosion in Alpine grasslands and thus the unknown variable when erosion modelling is attempted. The aim of this study is to assess the importance of snow gliding as a soil erosion agent for four different land use/land cover types in a subalpine area in Switzerland. We used three different approaches to estimate soil erosion rates: sediment yield measurements in snow glide depositions, the fallout radionuclide 137Cs and modelling with the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE). RUSLE permits the evaluation of soil loss by water erosion, the 137Cs method integrates soil loss due to all erosion agents involved, and the measurement of snow glide deposition sediment yield can be directly related to snow-glide-induced erosion. Further, cumulative snow glide distance was measured for the sites in the winter of 2009/2010 and modelled for the surrounding area and long-term average winter precipitation (1959–2010) with the spatial snow glide model (SSGM). Measured snow glide distance confirmed the presence of snow gliding and ranged from 2 to 189 cm, with lower values on the north-facing slopes. We observed a reduction of snow glide distance with increasing surface roughness of the vegetation, which is an important information with respect to conservation planning and expected and ongoing land use changes in the Alps. Snow glide erosion estimated from the snow glide depositions was highly variable with values ranging from 0.03 to 22.9 t ha−1 yr−1 in the winter of 2012/2013. For sites affected by snow glide deposition, a mean erosion rate of 8.4 t ha−1 yr−1 was found. The difference in long-term erosion rates determined with RUSLE and 137Cs confirms the constant influence of snow-glide-induced erosion, since a large difference (lower proportion of water erosion compared to total net erosion) was observed for sites with high snow glide rates and vice versa. Moreover, the difference between RUSLE and 137Cs erosion rates was related to the measured snow glide distance (R2 = 0.64; p < 0.005) and to the snow deposition sediment yields (R2 = 0.39; p = 0.13). The SSGM reproduced the relative difference of the measured snow glide values under different land uses and land cover types. The resulting map highlighted the relevance of snow gliding for large parts of the investigated area. Based on these results, we conclude that snow gliding appears to be a crucial and non-negligible process impacting soil erosion patterns and magnitude in subalpine areas with similar topographic and climatic conditions.