Anthropic pressure on drainage basins in fragile ecosystems: variations in the organic carbon stock associated to fluvial morphological changes


  • A. Halifa-Marín CEBAS-CSIC, Grupo de Erosión y Conservación de Suelos y Agua
  • P. Pérez-Cutillas CEBAS-CSIC, Grupo de Erosión y Conservación de Suelos y Agua Departamento de Geografía, Facultad de Letras, Universidad de Murcia
  • M. Almagro CEBAS-CSIC, Grupo de Erosión y Conservación de Suelos y Agua
  • C. Boix-Fayos CEBAS-CSIC, Grupo de Erosión y Conservación de Suelos y Agua



Fluvial geomorphology, ephemeral channels, erosion processes, organic carbon pools, organic carbon stocks, organic carbon sequestration


Anthropic changes in the drainage area of catchments can influence dominant erosion processes and sediment sources and mobilize specific carbon pools. It also causes changes in the sedimentary dynamics and thus in the fluvial morphology. At the same time fluvial morphologies can create the conditions for stabilizing organic carbon (OC) in sediments by burial, carbon preservation, slowing down mineralization processes, and terrestrial or aquatic plant colonization. All this might have a significant impact on the fluvial carbon sink or sources. This work explores the impact of changes in the drainage area (reforestation, check-dam building, agricultural abandonment) on fluvial morphology and on the sedimentary carbon sink of an arid and erodible catchment. The methodological approach combines cartographic analysis of land use, geomorphological photointerpretation of the channel and slope-channel connections in 1956 and 2016. Furthermore, soil and sediment sampling across the catchment for organic carbon stock determination was carried out. The watershed underwent a drastic transformation of land use from 1956, changing from an agrarian scenario to a forest pattern in 2016. This evolution altered sedimentological dynamics and fluvial morphologies. The active channel was narrowed (52%) whereas bank erosion (77%) and the adjacent gullies (11%) increased. The inner alluvial plain increased up to 31% and alluvial fans up to 37%. In addition, vegetation in the channel increased up to 16%. All this led to an increase of the total OC pool of fluvial sediments (12%), slightly above than the increase of OC total pool in the soils of the catchment (10%). The ratio of the OC stock sediments/soils was > 0.8, which indicates the large capacity of carbon sequestration of fluvial sediments, with OC stocks larger than those of agricultural soils. It was found that the geomorphological dynamics plays an important role in the OC fluvial flows. In scenarios of channel narrowing and vegetation encroachment of fluvial morphologies, the sediments can stabilize and generate OC sinks. These processes of OC sequestration in dry and ephemeral channels can have a large relevance for various ecosystem services and should be considered in the management of fluvial sedimentary areas.


Download data is not yet available.


Beck, H., Salvini, G., Schellekens, J., Brujinzeel, S., de Jeu, R. 2009. Hydrological impacts of land cover change in the Dragonja catchment (Slovenia). SPIE7472, 205, 01-07. https://doi. org/10.1117/12.830533.

Beguería, S., López-Moreno, J., Gómez-Villar, A., Rubio, v: Lana-Renault, N., García-Ruiz, J. 2006. Fluvial adjustments to soil erosion and plant cover changes in the Central Spanish Pyrenees. Geografiska Annaler 88 A (3), 177-186.

Berhe, A.A., Harden, J.W., Torn, M.S., Kleber, M., Burton, S.D., Harte, J. 2012. Persistence of soil organic matter in eroding versus depositional landform positions. Journal of Geophysical Research Biogeosciences 117, 1-16.

Boix-Fayos, C., Barbera, G.G., López-Bermúdez, F., Castillo, V.M. 2007. Effects of check dams, reforestation and land-use changes on river channel morphology: Case study of the Rogativa catchment (Murcia, Spain). Geomorphology 91 (1-2), 103-123. geomorph.2007.02.003.

Boix-Fayos, C., de Vente, J., Martínez-Mena, M., Barberá, G.G., Castillo, V. 2008. The impact of land-use changes and check-dams on catchment sediment yield. Hydrological Processes 22 (25), 4922-4935.

Boix-Fayos, C., de Vente, J., Albaladejo, J., Martínez-Mena, M. 2009. Soil carbon erosion and stock as affected by land use changes at the catchment scale in Mediterranean ecosystems. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 133, 75-85. agee.2009.05.013.

Boix-Fayos, C., Nadeu, E., Quiñonero, J.M., Martínez-Mena, M., Almagro, M., de Vente, J. 2015. Sediment flow paths and associated organic carbón dynamics across a Mediterranean catchment. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 19, 1209-1223. hess-19-1209-2015.

Boix-Fayos, C., Martínez-Mena, M., Pérez-Cutillas, P., de Vente, J., G. Barberá, G., Mosch, W., Navarro Cano, J.A., Gaspar, L., Navas, A. 2017. Carbon redistribution by erosion processes in an intensively disturbed catchment. Catena 149, 799-809. catena.2016.08.003.

Casado, A., Peiry, J.L., Campo, A.M. 2016. Geomorphic and vegetation changes in a meandring dryland river regulated by a large dam, Sauce Grande River, Argentina. Geomrphology 268, 21-34.

Castillo, V.M., Mosch, W.M., Conesa, C., Barberá, G.G., Navarro, J.A., López Bermúdez, F. 2007. Effectiveness and geomorphological impacts of check dams for soil erosion control in a semiarid Mediterranean catchment: El Cárcavo (Murcia, Spain). Catena 70, 416-427.

Chappell, A., Webb, N.P., Viscarra Rossel, R.A., Bui, E. 2014. Australian net (1950s-1990) soil organic carbon erosion: implications for CO2 emission and land-atmosphere modelling. Biogeosciences 11, 5235-5244.

Devesa-Rey, R., Barral, M.T. 2012. Allochthonous versus autochthonous naturally occurring organic matter in the Anllo´ns river bed sediments (Spain). Environmental Earth Sciences 66, 773-782.

De Vente, J., Boix-Fayos, C., Blas-Larrosa, J., González-Barberá, G., Castillo, V. 2007. Restauración Hidrológico-Forestal: Efectos sobre el ciclo hidrológico. Cuenca Hidrográfica del Río Segura. Informe sobre la clasificación de usos de suelo, LAI y profundidad de raíces. CEBAS-CSIS, Murcia.

Doetterl, S., Six, J., Van Wesemael, B., Van Oost, K. 2012. Carbon cycling in eroding landscapes: Geomorphic controls on soil organic C pool composition and C stabilization. Global Change Biology 18, 2218-2232.

Doetterl, S., Berhe, A., Nadeu, E., Wang, Z., Sommer, M., Fiener, P. 2016. Erosion, deposition and soil carbon: A review of process-level controls, experimental tools and models to address C cycling in dynamic landscapes. Earth-Science Reviews 154, 102-122. https://doi. org/10.1016/j.earscirev.2015.12.005.

Egoh, B.N., Drakou, E.G., Dunbar, M.B., Maes, J., Willemen, L., 2012. Indicators for mapping ecosystem services: A Review. EUR 25456 EN. Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg JRC73016.

Elliott, K.J., Caldwell, P.V., Brantley, S.T., Miniat, C.F., Vose, J.M., Swank, W.T. 2017. Water yield following forest-grass-forest transitions. Hidrology and Earth System Sciences 21, 981-997.

Gallart, F., Llorens, P. 2009. Catchment management under environmental change: impact of land cover change on water resources. Water Internacional 28 (3), 334-340. https://doi. org/10.1080/02508060308691707.

García-Ruíz, J.M., Lopéz-Moreno, J.I., Vicente-Serrano, S.M., Lasanta-Martínez, T., Beguería, S. 2011. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario. Earth-Science Reviews 105, 121-139.

García-Ruíz, J.M., Lana-Renault, N. 2011. Hydrological and erosive consequences of farmland abandonment in Europe, with special reference to the Mediterranean region – A review. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 140, 317-338. agee.2011.01.003.

Gómez-Villar, A., Martínez-Castroviejo, R. 1991. Channel degradation as a response to erosion control Works: a case study. In: M. Sala M, J.L. Rubio, J.M. García-Ruíz(Eds.), Soil Erosion Studies in Spain. Geoforma Ediciones, Logroño, pp. 109-122.

Halifa-Marín, A., Pérez-Cutillas, P., Almagro-Bonmatí, M., Martínez-Mena, M., Boix-Fayos, C. (2019). Dinámica geomorfológica y cambios de usos del suelo: impacto en los reservorios de suelos y sedimentos. Bosque 40 (1), 3-16.

Haregeweyn, N., Poesen, J., Deckers, J., Nyssen, J., Hayle, M., Govers, G, Verstraeten, G., Moeyersons, J. 2008. Sediment-bound nutrient export from micro-dam catchments in Northern Ethiopia. Land Degradation & Development 19, 136-152.

Helldén, U., Tottrup, C. 2008. Regional desertification: A global synthesis. Global and Planetary Change 64, 169-176.

Hoffmann, T.; Mudd, S.M., van Oost, K.; Verstraeten, G., Erkens, G., Lang, A., Middelkoop, H., Boyle, J., Kaplan, J.O., Willenbring, J., Aalto, R. 2013. Short communication: Humans and the missing C-sink: erosion and burial of soil carbon through time. Earth Surface Dynamics 1, 45-52.

Keesstra, S.D., Van Huissteden, J., Vandenberghe, J., Van Dam, O., de Gier, J., Pleizier, I.D. 2005. Evolution of the morphology of the river Dragonja (SW Slovenia) due to land-use changes. Geomorphology 69, 191-207.

Kondolf, G.M., Piégay, H., Landon, N. 2002. Channel response to increased and decrease bedload supply from land use change: contrasts between two catchments. Geomorphology 45, 35-51.

Lal, R., Griffin, M., Apt, J., Lave, L., Morgan, M.G. 2004. Ecology: Managing Soil Carbon. Science 304, 393.

Lal, R., Negassa, W., Lorenz, K. 2015. Carbon sequestration in soil. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 15, 79-86.

Lesschen, J.P., Cammeraat, L.H., Nieman, T. 2008. Erosion and terrace failure due to agricultural land abandonment in a semi-arid environment. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 33, 1574-1584.

Lopez-Bermúdez, F., Romero Diaz, M.A. 1992. Génesis y consecuencias erosivas de las lluvias de alta intensidad en la región mediterránea. Cuadernos de Investigación Geográfica 18-19, 7-28.

Martínez-Mena, M., Almagro, M., García-Franco, N., de Vente, J., García, E., Boix Fayos, C. (2018). Fluvial sedimentary deposits as carbon sinks: organic carbon pools and stabilization mechanisms in a Mediterranean catchment. Biogeosciences Discussions. https://doi. org/10.5194/bg-2018-414.

Muñoz-Rojas, M., Jordán, A., Zavala, L.M., De la Rosa, D., Abd-Elmabod, S.K., Anaya-Romero, M. 2012. Organic carbon stocks in Mediterranean soil types under different land uses. Solid Earth 3, 375-386.

Nadeu, E., de Vente, J., Martínez-Mena, M., Boix-Fayos, C. 2011. Exploring particle size distribution and organic carbon reservorirs mobilized by different erosion processes at the catchment scale. Journal of Soils and Sediments 11, 667-678.

Nadeu, E., Berhe, A.A., De Vente, J., Boix-Fayos, C. 2012. Erosion, deposition and replacement of soil organic carbon in Mediterranean catchments: a geomorphological, isotopic and land use change approach. Biogeosciences 9, 1099-1111.

Nadeu, E., Van Oost, K., Boix-Fayos, C., de Vente, J. 2014. Importance of land use patterns for erosion-induced carbon fluxes in a Mediterranean catchment. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 189, 181-189.

Nadeu, E., Quiñonero-Rubio, J.M., de Vente, J., Boix-Fayos, C. 2015. The influence of catchment morphology, lithology and land use on soil organic carbon export in a Mediterranean mountain region. Catena 126, 117-125.

Pérez-Cutillas, P., Cataldo, M.F., Zema, D.A., de Vente, J., Boix-Fayos, C. 2018. Efectos de la revegetación a escala de cuenca sobre el caudal y la evapotranspiración en ambiente mediterráneo. Cuenca del Taibilla (SE de España). Bosque 39 (1), 119-129. https://doi. org/10.4067/S0717-92002018000100011.

Piégay, H., Walling, D.E., Landon, N., Quinping, H., Liébault, F., Petiot, R. 2004. Contemporary changes in sediment yield in a mountain basin due to afforestation (the upper Drôme in France). Catena 55, 183-212.

Quiñonero-Rubio, J.M., Boix-Fayos, C., de Vente, J. 2013. Development and application of a multi-factorial sediment connectivity index at the catchment scale. Cuadernos de Investigación Geografica 39 (2), 203-233.

Quiñonero-Rubio, J.M., Nadeu, E., Boix-Fayos, C., de Vente, J. 2016. Evaluation of the effectiveness of forest restoration and check-dams to reduce catchment sediment yield. Land Degradation & Development 27, 1018-1031.

Ran, L., Lu, X.X., Xin. 2014. Erosion-induced massive organic carbon burial and carbon emission in the Yellow River basin, China. Biogeosciences 11, 945-959.

Rull, V. 2018. El Antropoceno. CSIC y Catarata. ISBN 978-84-00-10314-9, 143 pp.

Salmi, T., Maatta, A., Anttila, P., Airola, T.R., Amnell, T. 2002. Detecting Trends of Annual Values of Atmospheric Pollutants by the Mann-Kendal Test and Sen’s Slope Estimates—The Excel Template Application MAKESENS; User Manual; Air Quality, Finish Meteorological Institute: Helsinki, Finland, 35 pp.

Sandercock, P.J., Hooke, J.M., Mant, J.M., 2007. Vegetation in dryland river channels and its interaction with fluvial processes. Progress in Physical Geography 31 (2), 107-129.

Sandercock, P.J., Hooke, J. M. 2011. Vegetation effects on sediment connectivity and processes in an ephemeral channel in SE Spain. Journal of Arid Environments 75, 239-254. https://doi. org/10.1016/j.jaridenv.2010.10.005.

Sanz-Cobena, A., Lassaletta, L., Garnier, J., Smith, P. 2017. Mitigation and quantification of greenhouse gas emissions in Mediterranean cropping systems. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 238, 1-4.

Simon, A., Darby, S.E. 2002. Effectiveness of grade-control structures in reducing erosion along incised river channels: the case of Hotophia Creek, Mississippi. Geomorphology 42, 229-254.

Stott, T., Mount, N. 2004. Plantation forestry impacts on sediment yields and downstream channel dynamics in the UK: a review. Progress in Physical Geography 28, 197-240. https://doi. org/10.1191/0309133304pp410ra.

Sum-Kim, G., Lim, C.H., Jin-Kim, S., Lee, J., Son, Y., Lee, W.K. 2017. Effect of National-Scale afforestation on forest water supply and soil loss in South Korea, 1971-2010. Sustainability 9 1017, 1-18.

Vadell, E., de-Miguel, S., Pernán, J. 2016. Large-scale reforestation and afforestation policy in Spain: a historical review of its underlying ecological, socioeconomic and political dynamics. Land Use Policy 55, 37-48.

Vanacker, V., Molina, A., Govers, G., Poesen, J., Dercon, G., Deckers, S. 2005. River channel response to short-term human-induced change in landscape connectivity in Andean ecosystems. Geomorphology 72, 340-355.

Wei, X., Qiu, L., Shao, M., Zhang, X., Gale, W. 2012. The accumulation of organic carbon in mineral soils by afforestation of abandoned farmland. PLoS ONE 7 (3), e32054. https://doi. org/10.1371/journal.pone.0032054.

Zhang Y., Peña-Arancibia, JL. McVicar, TR., Chiew, FHS., Vaze, J., Liu, C., Lu, X., Zheng, H., Wang, Y., Liu, YY., Miralles, DG., Pan, M. 2016. Multi-decadal trends in global terrestrial evapotranspiration and its components. Scientific Reports 6.



How to Cite

Halifa-Marín A, Pérez-Cutillas P, Almagro M, Boix-Fayos C. Anthropic pressure on drainage basins in fragile ecosystems: variations in the organic carbon stock associated to fluvial morphological changes. CIG [Internet]. 2019 Jun. 18 [cited 2022 Dec. 4];45(1):245-69. Available from: