EGU General Assembly 2022
© Author(s) 2022. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Fallout radionuclides indicate a 10% loss of European topsoil in 50 years

Katrin Meusburger1, Olivier Evrard2, Cristiano Ballabio3, Pasquale Borrelli4, Michael Ketterer5, Kristof van Oost6,7, Florian Wilken8, and Christine Alewell9
Katrin Meusburger et al.
  • 1WSL, Forest Soils and Biogeochemistry, Birmendorf, Switzerland (
  • 2Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement (LSCE-IPSL), UMR 8212 (CEA-CNRS-UVSQ), Université Paris-Saclay, CEA Saclay, l’Orme des Merisiers, 91191 Gif-sur-Yvette Cedex, France.
  • 3European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Via E. Fermi 2749, I-21027 Ispra (VA), Italy.
  • 4Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Pavia, Via Ferrata, 1, 27100 Pavia, Italy.
  • 5Chemistry Department, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Colorado, USA.
  • 6TECLIM, George Lemaitre Center for Earth and Climate, Earth and Life Institute, Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium.
  • 7Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS), Brussels, 1000, Belgium.
  • 8Institute for Geography, Universität Augsburg, Augsburg, Germany.
  • 9Environmental Geosciences, University of Basel, Bernoullistrasse 30, CH-4056 Basel, Switzerland.

Quantifying soil erosion is a major research challenge due to erosion's episodic character and spatial variation. Fallout radionuclides as 239+240Pu and 137Cs are powerful tools to assess net soil losses integrated over long periods applicable to most regions of the world. The traditional approach of the FRN method is based on the comparison between an inventory (total radionuclide activity per unit area) at a given sampling site and that of an undisturbed reference site (e.g., located in a flat and well-vegetated area). Compared to reference, a decrease in the FRN inventory indicates erosion and an increase indicating deposition of sediments and associated FRN. So far, FRN based assessment was restricted to a regional/catchment scale as spatially distributed data of reference inventories was missing.

In this study, we aim at upscaling the FRN approach to a central area of Europe covering France, North Italy, South Germany, and Belgium using the Land Use/Cover Area frame Survey – LUCAS soil sample bank. Both fallout sources left a specific radionuclide imprint in European soils. First, plutonium was used to quantify global versus Chernobyl fallout contributions to 137Cs found in European soils. Subsequently, spatial prediction models (general additive models) allowed reconstructing the global versus Chernobyl 137Cs fallout pattern across national boundaries. The definition of these 137Cs and the Pu baseline maps allows assessing soil redistribution rates at n=137 cropland sites with both FRNs across the study area. We selected barley, wheat, maize, and vineyard plots covering different slope angles as cropland sites. For both FRNs, differences between the reference and site-specific FRN inventory show an inventory and associated topsoil (0-20cm) loss of approximately 10% since 1963. Converting these inventory changes with a simple mass balance model to soil redistribution rates results in average soil erosion rates of 8.8 ± 6.3 t/ ha yr, assuming a tillage depth of 20 cm. Although the involved uncertainties are large, these net erosion rates exceed the expected magnitude.

How to cite: Meusburger, K., Evrard, O., Ballabio, C., Borrelli, P., Ketterer, M., van Oost, K., Wilken, F., and Alewell, C.: Fallout radionuclides indicate a 10% loss of European topsoil in 50 years, EGU General Assembly 2022, Vienna, Austria, 23–27 May 2022, EGU22-6154,, 2022.