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A Mechanism of Land Degradation in Turf-Mantled Slopes of the Tibetan Plateau

  • Author(s): Okin, GS
  • D'Odorico, P
  • Liu, J
  • et al.
Abstract

©2018. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved. Kobresia pygmaea meadows are typical of Tibetan Plateau landscapes in the 3,000 to 5,500 m elevation range and constitute the most extensive alpine ecosystem in the world. Kobresia pygmaea forms turf mats that stabilize the surface and shelter the underlying soils from water erosion. Large tracts of the Plateau, however, exhibit signs of ongoing degradation of the turf and erosion of the underlying soil. Despite the crucial role played by K. pygmaea turf mats in the stabilization of the headwaters of major Asian rivers, the mechanisms responsible for their degradation remain poorly investigated. Here we develop a process-based model of land degradation of Tibetan Plateau slopes, which accounts for (i) turf cracking, (ii) water flow concentration in the cracks, (iii) crack widening by scouring, and (iv) sheet-flow erosion. As expected, soil erosion increases with the slope and drainage area (hence the observation of stronger erosion in relatively steep downhill sites). Model simulations indicate that with a sensible set of parameters representative of soil and hydrologic conditions in the region, Tibetan Plateau landscapes are vulnerable to turf mat degradation and soil erosion. As soon as polygonal cracks develop, water flow widens them until the landscape is completely barren. At this point sheet flow eventually erodes the mineral soil leaving behind a highly degraded landscape.

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