11 Dec 2023
 | 11 Dec 2023

On the potential of a low-complexity model to decompose the temporal dynamics of soil erosion and sediment delivery

Francis Matthews, Panos Panagos, Arthur Fendrich, and Gert Verstraeten

Abstract. Testing and improving the capacity of soil erosion and sediment delivery models to simulate the intra-annual dynamics climatic drivers and disturbances (e.g. vegetation clearcutting, tillage events, wildfires) is critical to understand the drivers of the system variability. In seasonally changing agricultural catchments, explicit temporal dynamics are typically neglected within many soil erosion modelling approaches, in favour of a focus on the long-term annual average as the predictive target. Here, we approach the trade-off between the need for model simplicity and temporally-dynamic predictions by testing the ability of a low-complexity, spatially distributed model (WaTEM/SEDEM), to decompose the 15-day dynamics of soil erosion and sediment yield. A standardised parameterisation and implementation routine was applied to four well-studied catchments in North-West Europe with open-access validation data. Through the testing of several alternative model spatial and connectivity structures, including the addition of an empirical runoff coefficient, we show that a temporally-static calibration of transport capacity cannot adequately replicate the relative seasonal decoupling of gross (on-site) soil erosion and sediment delivery. Instead, embedding seasonality into the calibration routine significantly improved the model performance, revealing a negative relationship between gross (pixel-scale soil displacement) and net erosion (stream channel sediment load) throughout the year. By incorporating temporal dynamics, the relative net effect is a reduction in the magnitudes of the spatially-distributed sediment fluxes at aggregated timescales, compared to a temporally-lumped approach. Published catchment observations infer that the efficacy of sediment delivery via overland flow is strongly reduced in the summer by abundant vegetative boundaries and increased in the winter via soil crusting and its promotion of runoff. Models operating at temporally-aggregated timescales should account for the possibility of decoupling in time and space between gross erosion and sediment delivery in arable catchment systems, related to alternations between transport- and detachment-limited sediment transport capacity states. Despite the complexities involved in the temporal downscaling of WaTEM/SEDEM, we show the utility of this approach to: 1) identify key missing information components requiring attention to reduce error in gross erosion predictions (e.g. more consideration of antecedent soil conditions), 2) form a basis for strategically adding physical process-representation, with a focus on maintaining low model complexity while improving predictive skill, and 3) better understand the spatial and temporal interdependencies within soil erosion models when undertaking upscaling exercises.

Francis Matthews, Panos Panagos, Arthur Fendrich, and Gert Verstraeten

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2023-2693', Pedro Batista, 04 Jan 2024
  • RC2: 'Comment on egusphere-2023-2693', Anonymous Referee #2, 22 Jan 2024
  • AC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2023-2693', Francis Matthews, 04 Mar 2024
Francis Matthews, Panos Panagos, Arthur Fendrich, and Gert Verstraeten
Francis Matthews, Panos Panagos, Arthur Fendrich, and Gert Verstraeten


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Short summary
We assess if a simplistic model can simulate the timing of soil erosion and sediment transport (delivery) in several small agricultural catchments in North-West Europe. The findings show that the loss of soil in fields and the delivery of sediment to streams are related in complex (non-linear) ways through time which impact our knowledge of soil redistribution. Furthermore, we show how adaptations of simplistic models can be used to reveal the missing processes which require future developments.