Soil retrogression and degradation

Soil retrogression and degradation are two regressive evolution processes associated with the loss of equilibrium of a stable soil. Retrogression is primarily due to soil erosion and corresponds to a phenomenon where succession reverts the land to its natural physical state. Degradation is an evolution, different from natural evolution, related to the local climate and vegetation.[1] It is due to the replacement of primary plant communities (known as climax vegetation) by the secondary communities. This replacement modifies the humus composition and amount, and affects the formation of the soil. It is directly related to human activity. Soil degradation may also be viewed as any change or ecological disturbance to the soil perceived to be deleterious or undesirable.[2]


At the beginning of soil formation, the bare rock out crops is gradually colonized by pioneer species (lichens and mosses). They are succeeded by herbaceous vegetation, shrubs and finally forest. In parallel, the first humus-bearing horizon is formed (the A horizon), followed by some mineral horizons (B horizons). Each successive stage is characterized by a certain association of soil/vegetation and environment, which defines an ecosystem.

Intensive tillage result on soil degradation
Willow hedge strengthened with fascines for the limitation of runoff, north of France

After a certain time of parallel evolution between the ground and the vegetation, a state of steady balance is reached. This stage of development is called climax by some ecologists and "natural potential" by others. Succession is the evolution towards climax. Regardless of its name, the equilibrium stage of primary succession is the highest natural form of development that the environmental factors are capable of producing.

The cycles of evolution of soils have very variable durations, between tens, hundreds, or thousands of years for quickly evolving soils (A horizon only) to more than a million years for slowly developing soils. The same soil may achieve several successive steady state conditions during its existence, as exhibited by the Pygmy forest sequence in Mendocino County, California. Soils naturally reach a state of high productivity, from which they naturally degrade as mineral nutrients are removed from the soil system. Thus older soils are more vulnerable to the effects of induced retrogression and degradation.