Dead zones in critical waterways. Accelerated loss of arable land. Massive famines. They’re all caused by the 24 billion tons of soil that are lost every year to erosion, a phenomenon that costs the world as much as $40 billion annually.
But predicting where erosion occurs—and thus how to prevent it—is a serious challenge.
That’s why UB geographer Sean Bennett has constructed various systems to model it, with assistance from the university’s machine shop. His methods range from the deceptively low-tech, like simulating rainstorms over sandboxes, to the high-tech, such as the use of particle image velocimetry (PIV) in large, re-circulating flumes to study how water and grains of sand interact.
The purpose of his work is both exceedingly practical—geared toward helping farmers learn how to best prevent erosion—and fundamental—to better understand how planetary surfaces evolve over time.
“We have feet in two domains,” Bennett explains. “We’re studying processes similar to those that created Niagara Falls; at the same time, we’re studying how these processes degrade soil resources worldwide.”
The UB research is helping scientists better understand some of the key triggers of erosion: the complex formation of channels on the landscape called rills and gullies.
“Rills and gullies are the dominant erosion processes on agricultural landscapes today and the main contributor to soil loss,” says Bennett, professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences and an active researcher in the UB 2020 Strategic Strength in Extreme Events.