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A century of gully erosion research: Urgency, complexity and study ap-
proaches

C. Castillo, J.A. Gómez

PII: S0012-8252(16)30184-2
DOI: doi: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2016.07.009
Reference: EARTH 2291

To appear in: Earth Science Reviews

Received date: 9 February 2016


Revised date: 30 May 2016
Accepted date: 21 July 2016

Please cite this article as: Castillo, C., Gómez, J.A., A century of gully erosion re-
search: Urgency, complexity and study approaches, Earth Science Reviews (2016), doi:
10.1016/j.earscirev.2016.07.009

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A century of gully erosion research: urgency, complexity and study approaches

C. Castillo1*, J. A. Gómez2.

1 University of Cordoba, Dep. of Rural Engineering, Campus Rabanales, Leonardo Da

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Vinci Building, 14071 Cordoba, Spain.

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2 Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. CSIC. Avenida Menéndez Pidal S/N. 1004

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Cordoba Spain. *Corresponding author (ccastillo@uco.es)

Abstract NU
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Gully erosion has become a field of growing interest among the research community but
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there still are numerous knowledge gaps that need to be addressed. The aim of this work
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is to carry out a systematic review on significant trends in gully erosion research

included in the Web of Science database in order to evaluate the survey methodologies,
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evaluate the impact of key factors on the complexity of gully erosion responses and
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raise public awareness of this urgent environmental issue. Gully erosion represents at
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present around 10% of soil erosion research, a percentage that is at odds with being the

worst form of soil degradation in agricultural areas. Despite the fact it is an ubiquitous

process all around the world, the worst stages of degradation take place where

unsustainable human practices operate in erosion-prone conditions such as erodible

soils, soft lithologies or geotechnically instable slopes. Anthropic influence is typically

the main driver of gully erosion evolution and has acted differently in time and results

across the countries depending on the history of land use and management practices.

Although gully erosion is known to be largely controlled by deep-profile properties, the

study on subsurface processes has frequently remained mostly descriptive and it is

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losing ground to other more recent techniques aiming to assess morphological changes.

We found empirical support for the argument that deeper incision tends to lead to higher

degradation rates, which endorses the focus on subsurface dynamics and early control to

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prevent catastrophic land degradation. Long-standing detailed survey programmes are

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still scarce in gully erosion studies all of which hampers a reliable evaluation of this

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highly variable phenomenon. Further coordinated and sustained research efforts are still

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required to tackle this urgent environmental problem through better understanding (e.g.

building longer and consistent data series, combining survey methodologies regarding

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surface and subsurface factors, providing standardised guidelines for interpretation),
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more effective control implementation and wider dissemination.

Keywords:
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Gully erosion; gully control; survey methodologies; subsurface processes; land


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degradation
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Abbreviations:
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A: gully plan area; AG: growth in gully area; D: gully depth; ; FULL: publications

sample including the results for the search 'gully'+'erosion' in the Web of Science

database; GULLY: publications sample including studies with gully erosion as main

topic; HR: headcut advance rates; L: gully length; QUADRA: publications sample

including studies reporting degradation rates in agricultural areas; SL-HD: soil loss

estimates based on high-density surveys; SL-LD: soil loss estimates based on low-

density surveys; SL-XS: soil loss estimates based on cross-sections measurements;

SOLO: publications sample including studies reporting specific soil losses in

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agricultural areas; SSL: specific soil losses; W: gully width; ; WOS: Web of Science;

XS: cross-section measurements.

1. Introduction

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Gully erosion has been recognized throughout history as a major land

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degradation process (Dotterweich et al., 2012), and in many cases has been directly

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linked to unsustainable land management. Since the beginning of the 20th century (e.g.

Rubey, 1928), an increasing number of publications on the topic have been available

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describing its importance, the main processes and factors and its detrimental effects

(Poesen, 2011). One of the earliest studies on gully erosion quantification dates back to
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Lyell´s visit to the United States in 1846 (Ireland, 1939). Since then, 'Lyell' gully has

been revisited several times - in 1902, 1922, 1937 (Ireland, 1939) and 1987 (Kennedy,
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2001) - and is one of the longest-studied cases we know of.


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A gully is known as a ‘cárcava’* in Spain, ‘ravine’ in France, ‘lavaka’ in


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Madagascar, 'wadi' in Arabic, ‘donga’ in South Africa, 'voçoroca' in Brazil and


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'barranco' in Argentina. According to the old Spanish dictionary ‘Tesoro de la Lengua


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Castellana’ by Sebastián de Covarrubias (1611), the word ‘cárcava’ derives from a

combination of the words meat (‘car-‘) and hole (‘-cava’). Its etymology is linked to the

excavation of deep, common pits to bury dead soldiers after a battle. This dictionary

also defines a large gully (‘carcavón’) as “large incisions made by extreme rainfall

events on erodible lands”. Interestingly, one definition stresses the gloomy function of

gullies as dumping areas for corpses and the other, the traditional binomial of erosion-

erodibility long recognised in soil erosion research (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Anthropic pressures on the land resulting in gully erosion. a) View inside a gully in Tijuana
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(Mexico) where recent urban developments accelerated degradation of former rangelands; b) gully filling

with heavy machinery without additional control practices helps perpetuate gully erosion in an intensive

agricultural landscape (picture by José Mora Jordano, in Córdoba, Spain).

Different criteria have been used to define gullies, such as: a) morphological

and topographical criteria: relatively deep steep-walled, poorly vegetated incisions in

the landscape with a catchment area of 10 km2 or less in Eustace et al. (2011) ; b)

hydrological criteria: water courses that are subject to ephemeral flash floods during

rainstorms (e.g. Morgan, 2005); c) Allowance of agricultural practices: stream channels

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whose width and depth do not allow normal tillage (SSSA, 2015); d) Instability:

recently formed incisions within a valley where no well-defined channel previously

existed, in Bettis and Thompson (1985). The main difference noted between ephemeral

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and permanent or classical gully erosion is the small depth (normally under 0.5 m) and

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short-lived nature of the former type, since it is tilled and filled in by farm equipment

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every year (Foster, 1986).

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In line with this diversity of definitions, the complexity of gully erosion

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assessment and our still limited understanding on the topic has been repeatedly

emphasised (Seginer, 1966; Bocco, 1991; Bocco and García-Oliva, 1992; Poesen, 2011;
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Stöcker et al., 2015). Previous literature reviews on gully erosion have presented,

mostly, a general, comprehensive approach, focusing on describing the general


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processes, main factors and models (Bocco, 1991; Bull and Kirkby, 1997; Poesen et al.,
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2003; Valentin et al., 2005; Capra, 2013). Only a few of them, however, have pursued

more specific scopes such as gully erosion in one country (Bocco and García-Oliva,
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1992), topographic thresholds analysis (Vandaele et al., 1996; Torri and Poesen, 2014)

or, recently, rates of headcut retreat (Vanmaercke et al., 2016).


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The main aim of this work is to evaluate gully erosion as a research topic after

nearly a century of scientific studies in order to emphasize the need for additional

efforts in the light of the magnitude of the environmental threat and the sources of

complexity of its study. To that end, we carried out a systematic review of those studies

available on the Web of Science database (scholarly scientific literature in English up to

the present moment), with particular emphasis on agricultural areas, which are the

regions most seriously affected by this form of erosion. It is not within the scope of this

review to carry out a general analysis on every aspect of gully erosion, but rather to

explore specific aspects deemed relevant to improve our way of interpreting gully

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erosion processes, re-evaluate our survey methodologies and raise public awareness of

this urgent environmental issue. For this purpose, 1) we assessed the significance of soil

degradation by gully erosion on the global scale and in comparison with other forms of

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soil erosion in agricultural areas (urgency); 2) we analysed key sources of uncertainty

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faced by gully erosion research (complexity); 3) we evaluated the study approaches on

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gully erosion regarding the evolution of publications, topics and survey methodologies

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(study approaches).

2. Materials and methods NU


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Figure 2 shows a flowchart of the methodology followed. In the manuscript,
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four groups of publications have been defined, each sample subsumed under the
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previous one: a) publications including the specified terms in Web of Science (FULL

sample); b) works with gully erosion as their main topic (GULLY subsample); c)
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publications including data on morphological degradation rates from gully erosion in


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agricultural areas (QUADRA subsample); and d) manuscripts providing specific soil


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loss values measured in agricultural areas (SOLO subsample).

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Figure 2. Methodology applied in the review including operations performed, article samples derived,

main results obtained and relation with the main objectives of the work.
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2.1. The FULL sample

In this work, we used the Web of Science (WOS) database as the reference for

scientific literature on gully erosion in the English language up to the present moment

(april 2016). The search criteria were 'gully' (as topic) & 'erosion' (as topic). Despite the

fact that this selection was highly representative of the research done on gully erosion

during the past few decades, it cannot possibly cover all the research carried out on this

topic. This review leaves out valuable sources of information such as papers in other

languages, grey literature (the body of knowledge outside academic publishing) or

manuscripts only to be found under other search terms. Therefore, our approach intends

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to make a major effort to address the overwhelming breadth of information on the

subject.

2.2. The GULLY sample

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An assessment of the content of each publication belonging to the FULL sample

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was carried out in order to select those works with gully erosion as their main subject.

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This initial evaluation was performed by reading the abstract of each publication and,

when needed, the manuscript itself. Next, a series of more-in-depth analyses were

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conducted to evaluate key characteristics of gully erosion studies that came within the
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FULL sample:

- Location and hotspots: a GIS database in GoogleEarth was built with the geographical
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coordinates (if provided) or approximate location of the study areas. Gully erosion 'hot
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spots' were identified following the indications of the authors regarding widespread,
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extreme or catastrophic gully erosion.


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- Environmental settings: climate, lithology and land use data were compiled. The
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climate data was obtained using the updated World Map of the Köppen-Geiger climate

classification (Kottek et al., 2006). For the rest of the parameters, the information

included in each study was considered.

- Main topic classification and evolution: a main topic was identified for each work of

the GULLY sample. A list of subjects and subtopics was made to organise these topics

into meaningful categories. When the papers dealt with different subjects, the main

topic was chosen. Otherwise, when several themes were studied similarly, the 'Varied'

category was selected.

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- Causes of initiation and change in gully erosion severity: the alleged causes of

initiation of gully erosion, as reported by the authors, were compiled, as well as the

main drivers of reactivation or stabilization of gully erosion included in long-term

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studies.

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- Subsurface processes: a specific search for references to subsurface processes in the

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articles was carried out. For this analysis, we neither regarded the mere mention of a

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subsurface process as a valid reference nor was it necessary for this evaluation to be the

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main topic of the publication. A reference was considered to be a statement of their

significance in a specific study area. In the subsurface category, we included


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lithological, soil profile, hydrogeological and geotechnical processes operating below

the surface such as resistant layers, mass wasting, piping, seepage, soil cracking or
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freeze-thaw processes.
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2.3. The QUADRA sample


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The QUADRA sample encompasses those studies reporting morphological

degradation rates from gully erosion in agricultural areas. We refer to agricultural areas
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in a broad sense including both cropping and grazing areas, excluding solely forest and

urban land uses. In this work, morphological degradation rates are considered to be any

measurement of changes in the geometry of the gully (involving linear, areal or

volumetric changes) produced by gully erosion, such as static gully network dimensions

(total length L, plan area A, drainage density), cross-section dimensions (cross section

profiles XS, width W and depth D), dynamic network parameters (headcut advance rates

HR and areal growth AG) and soil loss estimates (from cross-sections SL-XS, low-

density SL-LD or high-density SL-HD surveys). Low-density surveys were those

providing measurements with a low number of points (in the order of tens or hundreds,

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typically GPS and total station campaigns), whereas high-density surveys resulted in

detailed digital elevation models derived from remote sensing techniques. When a study

included a range of degradation rates, it was included into the category defined by the

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more complex measurement. Estimates given by non-morphological techniques such as

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soil quality analysis, sediment tracing or fingerprinting have not been considered, with

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the exception of the quantification of specific soil losses using discharge and sediment

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monitoring.

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In this section, the survey methodology for the assessment of degradation rates

was revised with regards to the spatial scales and variables measured. In addition to this,
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the intensity and time span of the surveys were evaluated by considering the number of

surveys and length of the study period of the measurements.


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2.4. The SOLO sample


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On a fourth level of analysis, those publications including specific soil losses


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from gully erosion in agricultural areas were compiled and compared with a previous

dataset on soil losses in conventional agriculture (Montgomery, 2007) in order to assess


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its relative importance. Specific soil losses (SSL) for a gullied catchment were

expressed as the average soil depth lost by gully erosion per year (mm·y-1) or event

(mm), by considering the volume of soil lost and the drainage area of the basin defined

by the gully outlet. When the specific soil losses were given in t·ha-1·y-1 units, they were

converted to mm·y-1 using the bulk density of the soil if provided. Otherwise, a soil bulk

density of 1.5 Mg/m3 was considered as a reference. When specific soil losses were

referred to the plan area of the gully, the value was corrected with the drainage area if

provided or, otherwise, discarded. If multiple spatial or temporal SSL data were

available, the average value was considered in this analysis.

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The relation of SSL with key factors such as catchment size (drainage area at the

outlet), rainfall (rain depth on a event basis) and gully size (maximum gully depth) was

also explored to discuss its variation across scales. Events were regarded in a wide sense

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as precipitation periods lasting one or a few consecutive days that were linked to

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specific erosion episodes by the authors. We included studies in which gully erosion

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was measured after each event or one single event was considered to be the only

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responsible for the erosion produced during a longer period. The event scale was chosen

for the rainfall analysis because the impact of a single or a few erosive events on annual

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degradation rates has been repeatedly emphasized in the literature (e.g. Casalí et al.,
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1999; Bouchnak et al., 2009).

3. Results
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A total of 1,583 publications were obtained as search results representing the

starting FULL sample for further analysis (Fig. 2). A quarter of the publications (384)
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were classified as papers mainly on gully erosion. Approximately half of them (164)
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included data on morphological degradation rates in agricultural areas and roughly one
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fifth (60) provided specific soil losses.

Comparing the number of works published annually on soil erosion

('soil+erosion' search in the WOS database) and gully erosion ('gully+erosion' search,

i.e. the FULL sample) during the last 30 years, we found similar trends, namely, a one

order-of-magnitude leap in 20 years and a sharp rise at the beginnings of the 90's

followed by a fairly constant increase from the end of this decade onwards (Figure 3a).

The overall tendency is shown more clearly when the data are represented using a 4-

period moving average. However, the growth rate is slightly higher for gully erosion,

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resulting in a percentage of gully erosion research ~10% in recent years, larger than

~5% at the beginning of this time series (Figure 3a, depicted in dots).

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Figure 3. Temporal analysis of publications on gully erosion. a) Comparison between the number of

publications on soil erosion and gully erosion (i.e. FULL sample) over the last 30 years in logarithmic

scale, showing in dots the percentage of gully erosion studies referred to the soil erosion sample; b)
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Number of publications belonging to the study samples. The subsamples appear superimposed on the
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superior category. Publications from 2016 were included up to the moment of the finalisation of this

work. On the left of the dashed line the years without publications according to the search criteria has
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been omitted.
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Looking at the evolution of the gully erosion samples in more detail, Figure 3b
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shows an increasing number of works in time, with a gradual rise during the 1990s and

an abrupt increase in 2003, when the number of publications more than doubled (from

~10 to ~25 per year) and a maximum of 33 articles in 2015. In this plot, the subsamples

appear superimposed on the superior category, e.g. the number of publications inside

the GULLY sample will result from the sum of the stripped (GULLY works outside the

inferior categories), grey (QUADRA works outside the SOLO category) and black bars

(SOLO publications).

Early publications from the 1980s and before are less well-represented in the

sample as a result of the lower number of indexed scientific publications in the field of
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soil erosion and the preeminence of design and technical reports. The gain in notoriety

of gully erosion at the beginning of the 21st century ran in parallel with the organization

of the International Symposiums on the topic held in Belgium (2000), China (2002),

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USA (2004) and Spain (2007). While the percentage of publications of gully erosion

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studies providing data on morphological degradation rates has been fairly stable, at

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around 50 % each year, the proportion of works dealing with specific soil losses tended

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to decrease slightly from ~25 % to ~15 % annually.

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3.1. Characteristics of gully erosion studies: the GULLY sample analysis
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3.1.1. Location, hotspots and climate

As can be seen in Figure 4, gully erosion has been described in a large number
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of countries. The grey-shaded areas highlight those countries with more than three
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reports on gully erosion in the GULLY sample and the text labels show areas

considered as gully erosion hotspots by the authors (in bold) and cities affected by
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urban gully erosion (in italic). Spain (37), the United States (36), Australia (26), China

(30), Ethiopia (17) and South Africa (15) lead the ranking in the number of studies with
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15 or more, followed by Belgium (11), New Zealand (9), Poland (8), Italy (8) and

Nigeria (7). The abundance of studies on gully erosion in specific locations is related to

a wide range of factors either natural (environmental susceptibility) or human (e.g.

historical land management or presence of scientific groups).

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Figure 4. Location of studies with gully erosion as main topic (GULLY sample). Countries with more

than 3 publications are shaded in grey. Hotspots reported by the authors indicating widespread, severe or
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catastrophic gully erosion areas have been labelled in bold. Stars and labels in italic indicate cities
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affected by urban gully erosion.


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As can be observed in Figure 5a, gully erosion has been reported in all climates

(excluding polar climate, type E). Only climate subcategories with more than 2 studies
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were considered for simplification purposes. A predominance of temperate climate

locations (United States, central Europe, China, central Madagascar, northern

Argentina, southeastern Australia, India or central Mexico) was found. Many studies are

located in the Mediterranean area, due to its semiarid conditions and rainfall variability

(Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, Italy, Iran and Israel). The incidence of gully erosion in

tropical areas is also frequent, such as in northeastern Australia, Brazil, New Zealand or

southern Nigeria.

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Figure 5. Classification of gully erosion studies (GULLY sample) according to a) climate (only categories

with more than 2 studies were considered for simplification purposes), b) land use and c) lithology.
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3.1.2. Land uses

As for land uses (Fig. 5b), gully erosion has been investigated in some urban
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areas (3.1%), with forests (13.2%) and grazing and crops accounting for major

contributions (~40% each).

Cities in Russia (e.g. Volgograd and Novosibirsk, Ledger, 1968), Canada (e.g.

Saskatoon, Archibold et al., 2003), Brazil (e.g. Sao Luis, Palmas and Gama, Carvalho et

al., 2010), Asutralia (e.g. Albury, Crouch, 1977) or Nigeria (e.g. Benin, Okoli, 2014)

are threatened by gully erosion derived from changes in drainage, infiltration conditions

and the development of infrastructures (see also Fig. 4). Gullies present in forest areas

tend to be relics of past periods of erosion and are at present largely stable due the

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effective protection offered by the vegetation (Dotterweich et al, 2003; Vanwalleghem

et al, 2005a; Rodzik et al., 2009), although external perturbations are likely to reactivate

gully erosion due to deforestation (De Rose et al, 1998), wildfires (Hyde et al., 2007;

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Gabet and Bookter, 2008; Galang et al., 2010) or infrastructures (Takken et al., 2008;

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Katz et al., 2014; Seutloali et al., 2016). However, gully erosion in undisturbed forest

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areas has also been reported (e.g. Hancock and Evans, 2006).

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The close link between agricultural activities and gully erosion is apparent when

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revising the reported causes of gully erosion initiation. The transformation from forests

to farmland or pasture has been given as a cause of accelerating gully erosion all over
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the world. In Europe, this process started in some areas in prehistoric times

(Vanwalleghem et al., 2006), in the Bronze Age (Zglobicki and Baran-Zglobicka, 2011;
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Smolska, 2007) and during the Middle Ages (Dotterweich et al., 2003; Stankovianksi,
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2003; Martinez-Casasnovas et al., 2004; Dotterweich, 2005; Lucia et al., 2011; Martin-

Moreno et al., 2014).


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In other continents, the transition to advanced agriculture occurred during the

modern era: between the 16th and 18th centuries in Brazil (De Oliveira, 1990; Costa and
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Prado Bacellar, 2007) or South Africa (Boardman, 2014), but mostly during the 19th

century in Canada (Burkard and Kostaschuk, 1995), the United States (Ireland,1939;

James et al., 2007; Perroy et al., 2010; Rieke-Zapp and Nichols, 2011), Nigeria

(Egboka, 1985), India (Singh and Agnihotri, 1987), New Zealand (De Rose et al., 1998,

Betts et al., 2003, Kasai et al., 2005; Marden et al., 2012), Australia (Beavis et al., 1999;

Bartley et al., 2007; Saxton et al., 2012) and Eastern Island (Mieth and Bork, 2005).

However, in the scientific literature, we can also find many examples of recent

gully erosion during the last century due to conversion to cropland (China - Hu et al.,

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2007), road construction (Kenya - Jungerius et al., 2002; Ethiopia - Nyssen et al., 2006),

agriculture intensification and overgrazing (Argentina - Argüello et al., 2006; Busnelli

et al., 2006; Brazil - Vrieling et al., 2007; Machado et al., 2010; Ethiopia - Moges and

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Holden, 2008; Tebebu et al., 2010; Mexico - Descroix et al., 2008).

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More specifically, ephemeral gully erosion has been reported to be a main

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concern mainly in annual crops (winter cereals, corn or soybeans) in Belgium (e.g.

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Vandaele and Poesen, 1995; Nachtergaele and Poesen, 1999; Maugnard et al., 2014),

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Spain (e.g. Casalí et al., 1999; Valcarcel et al., 2003; De Santisteban et al., 2006; Mirás-

Avalos et al., 2009), Portugal (e.g. Vandaele et al., 1997), United States (e.g. Lentz et
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al., 1993; Gordon et al., 2008) , China (e.g. Cheng et al., 2006; Zhang et al., 2007) and

Italy (e.g. Capra et al., 2009a), but also in olive orchards and vineyards in Spain (e.g.
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Martinez-Casasnovas et al., 2002; Taguas et al., 2010; 2012) and grassland in Italy
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(Zucca et al., 2006), Greece, Portugal and Spain (Vandekerckhove et al., 2000).
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3.1.3. Lithology
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Regarding bedrock (Fig. 5c), sedimentary rocks are by far the most common
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lithological factor (67.7%), and this is most likely a consequence of their greater relative

abundance on the earth’s crust and their frequently lower resistance to erosion. Loess

(the most significant individual type), marls and other sedimentary deposits stand out in

this category.

Aeolian deposits have been reported to be prone to gully erosion in all loess

belts across the world, such as in the United States (Piest et al., 1975 ; Laffan and

Cutler, 1977; Lentz et al., 1993; Casalí et al., 1999; Thomas et al., 2004; Zaimes and

Schultz, 2012), China (Stolte et al., 2003; Hessel and Van Asch, 2003; Wu and Cheng,

2005; Cheng et al., 2007; Zhu, 2012; Huang et al., 2012; Xu et al. 2016), Israel (Avni,

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2005), Argentina (Argüello et al., 2006; Busnelli et al., 2006), Poland (Malik, 2006;

Schmitt et al., 2006; Rodzik et al., 2009; Dotterweich et al., 2012) or Belgium

(Vandaele and Poesen, 1995; Nachtergaele and Poesen, 1999; Desmet et al., 1999;

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Maugnard et al., 2014). The vulnerability of loess to gully erosion has been attributed to

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its low resistance to detachment, susceptibility to collapse and impermeable geological

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strata configurations which promote seepage.

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The susceptibility of marls to gully erosion (Bufalo and Nahon, 1992; Radoane

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et al., 1995; Meyer and Martinez-Casasnovas., 1999; Casalí et al., 1999; Nogueras et al.,

2000; Collison, 2001; Martinez-Casasnovas et al., 2002; Billi and Dramis, 2003;
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Castillo et al., 2007; Lesschen et al., 2007; Samani et al., 2010; Castillo et al, 2012; El

Khallili et al., 2013; Stöcker et al., 2015) is often believed to be caused by their clayey
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texture, softness and geochemical properties, such as high pH levels and sodium content
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(Faust and Schmidt, 2009).


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Unconsolidated sandstones, mudstones and shales also show a large incidence of


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gully erosion (Betts et al., 2003; Sonneveld et al., 2005; Kasai et al., 2005; Ghimire et

al., 2006; Parkner et al., 2006; Boardman and Foster, 2008; Kakembo et al., 2009;
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Mararakanye and Le Roux, 2012; Marden et al., 2012; Le Roux and Sumner, 2012;

Grellier et al., 2012; Seutloali et al., 2016). Apart from specific bedrock properties,

certain sedimentary strata arrangements can promote favourable conditions for seepage

and subsequent wall collapse, as is reported in loess-till configurations (Piest et al.,

1975) or alternating layers of shale-sandstone (Egboka, 1985; Okoyeh et al., 2014).

However, gully erosion also occurs in plutonic and metamorphic lithologies

albeit it has been described less frequently (3.0% and 7.3%, respectively). Their

normally hard, solid nature explains why severe gully erosion frequently occurs in deep

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soils, regoliths or saprolites in those environments (Ireland, 1939; Wells and

Andriamihaja, 1993; diCenzo and Luk, 1997; Sheng and Liao, 1997; Wishart and

Warburton, 2001; Daba et al., 2003; Morgan and Mngomezulu, 2003; Bacellar et al.,

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2005; Sidorchuk, 2006; Costa et al., 2007; James et al., 2007; Achten et al., 2008;

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Tebebu et al., 2010; Voarintsoa et al., 2012). Gully erosion has also been studied in

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volcanic substrates in 6.7% of the cases (e.g. Bocco, 1993; Nagasaka el al., 2005; Doniz

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et al., 2011; Haile and Fetene, 2012).

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3.1.4. Classification of the main topic and its evolution in gully erosion research
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A summary of the main topics in gully erosion studies is shown in Table 1.
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Measurement-based studies represent the main category (65.6%, almost two thirds of
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the total), with models (8.8%) and gully prediction indexes (8.1%) in second and third

places, respectively. Gully prediction indexes represent study approaches based on the
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analysis of environmental parameters (generally either topographic or multifactorial) for


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the prediction of gully location or severity. Qualitative studies (5.2 %) comprises those
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works with mainly a descriptive basis, whereas studies on gully control (4.2%) and

reviews are less common (2.3%).

Most of past gully erosion research has focused on either providing quantitative

estimates of degradation rates or analysing which factors might be responsible for it,

with both categories accounting together for almost half of the studies. Short-term

estimations are the most frequent (53), followed by long-term studies (32) based mainly

on the interpretation of orthophotographies. Historical analyses (study periods

extending for several centuries) has been included also in this category due to their

focus on the temporal scale.

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Despite the fact that many of the factor and processes analyses concentrated on a

range of variables (under the 'Varied' label, 24 works), the influence of topography

stands out above all the other factors as the main topic (24 studies). This emphasis on

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topography cannot be underestimated, if we also consider that many other publications

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deal with the subject, but not as the main topic. Undoubtedly, the evaluation of

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topographic thresholds for gully initiation (by plotting the drainage area and slope at

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the headcut in logarithmic axes in the S·A-b form) has been the most popular approach in

gully erosion literature, beginning with the pioneering study by Patton and Schumm

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(1975). Since then, a total of 41 studies were found to perform topographic threshold
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analyses (32 of them using the slope-area representation and 9, similar approaches), and

this has merited a full review on the topic (Torri and Poesen, 2014). Compared to this,

much less attention has been given to other aspects such as soil (3), groundwater (3) or
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the influence of lithology (1) as main topics.

Methodological issues (10.6%) have gained weight in gully research concerning


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gully delineation (James et al., 2007; Evans and Lindsay, 2010; Eustace et al., 2011;

Baruch and Filin, 2011; Shruthi et al., 2011; Desprats et al., 2013; Frankl et al., 2013b;
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Kandrika and Dwivedi, 2013; Castillo et al., 2014a; Wang et al., 2014; He, 2014;

Maugnard et al., 2014), measurement errors (Casalí et al., 2006; Giménez et al., 2009;

Castillo et al., 2012), gully morphology (e.g. Capra et al., 2009b; Kompani-Zare et al.,

2011; Casalí et al., 2015; Deng et al., 2015) and the application of innovative remote-

sensing techniques (e.g. Sneddon et al., 1988; Ritchie et al., 1992; Marzolff et al., 2009;

Perroy et al., 2010; Castillo et al., 2012; d'Oleire-Oltmanns et al., 2012; Kaiser et al.,

2014; Castillo et al., 2015; Stöcker et al., 2015; Wells et al., 2016).

Models have also received attention (8.8%), with widely contrasting scales,

scopes and aims (Poesen et al., 2003; Capra, 2013). A number of works are mainly

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general overviews of gully erosion, with little or no quantitative approaches and a total

of 9 reviews on gully erosion were found in the sample: 4 regarding general aspects

(Bocco, 1991; Bull and Kirkby, 1997; Poesen et al., 2003; Valentin and Poesen, 2005),

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1 for research in Mexico (Bocco, 1991), 1 for ephemeral gullies (Capra, 2013), 2

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focusing on topographic thresholds (Vandaele et al., 1996; Torri and Poesen, 2014) and,

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very recently, one dealing with rates of headcut retreat (Vanmaercke et al., 2016).

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Laboratory-based analyses are in the minority (e.g. Momm et al., 2015), with headcuts

and subsurface processes as the more commonly studied aspects (e.g. Wilson et al.,

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2008; Wilson et al., 2011; Chen et al., 2013). Publications with gully control using
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vegetation (e.g. Ivonin and Prakhov, 1986; Rey, 2003), check dams (e.g. Xu et al.,

2004; Nyssen et al., 2004) or a combination of approaches (Sheng and Liao, 1997;

Imwangana et al., 2015; Guerra et al., 2015) as the main topic are rare (4.2%), although
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it is most likely that some additional papers might be found under more specific search

terms on scientific literature databases.


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From a temporal perspective (Fig. 6a), looking into the 7 main categories of

topics for gully erosion studies (Table 1), several trends can be noted at different time
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intervals. While until the early 1990´s measurement-based and qualitative studies were

predominant, shortly laboratory approaches started to gain significance. Between 1999

and 2005 a notable number of works dealt with the development or application of gully

erosion models, whereas from 2006 to date articles based on gully prediction indexes

have become popular.

Focusing on the first category (measurement-based studies, Fig. 6b), until 2005

the evaluation of degradation rates and factors and processes were the main research

topics. From that date onwards a large amount of methodological approaches have been

proposed (e.g. regarding measurement techniques, gully limits and morphology and

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survey errors) while at the same time the effects of gully erosion on soil quality,

productivity and production costs started to receive attention.

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Figure 6. Evolution of the main topic in gully erosion studies (GULLY sample) in stacked bar charts, a)

for the seven main categories (Table 1); b) for the four subcategories of measurement-based studies (from

the first category, dark blue in the upper chart). Categories with a substantial increase of occurrence has

been indicated above each chart for each time interval. On the left of the dashed line the years without

publications according to the search criteria has been omitted.

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3.1.5. References to subsurface processes

From the pioneering studies on gully research onwards, subsurface processes

have drawn a great deal of attention. Rubey’s (1928) observations were the first among

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many dedicated to the importance of deep processes in gully evolution. Whereas this

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emphasis was prominent in the early literature, there has been a gradual drop in interest

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(measured as the percentage of studies with references to subsurface processes) over the

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last few decades in favour of analysing surface processes, with the emergence of GIS

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tools and remote sensing imagery (Fig 7a). While during the early decades of gully

erosion research, descriptions of subsurface processes were common in most studies, in


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recent years only around 10% of the studies or fewer include any reference to them.
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Figure 7. References to subsurface processes in gully erosion studies (GULLY sample). a) Evolution of

the percentage of references to subsurface processes. On the left of the dashed line the years without

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publications according to the search criteria has been omitted; b) Percentages of different typologies

across the whole sample.

Although subsurface factors and processes have been only rarely the main topic

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of study (around 18 in total, i.e. ~ 5% , Table 1), references to them are much more

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frequent (Figure 7.b). As much as a third of gully erosion studies (29.1%) included

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significant mentions. Piping and tunnelling, lithological factors and sidewall and soil

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profile processes show a similar frequency of references in literature (~ 5%), whereas

soil cracking, groundwater and seepage are less frequent.

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Tunnel and piping erosion have been reported by Rubey (1928), Laffan and
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Cutler (1977), Lynn and Eyles (1984), Vandekerckhove et al. (2000), Ries and Marzolff

(2003), Vandekerckhove et al. (2003), Billi and Dramis (2003), Nyssen et al. (2006),
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Desir and Marín (2007), Moges and Holden (2008), Rodzik et al. (2009) and Frankl et
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al. (2012). Specific studies on the topic have been conducted in the field (Zhu, 2012;

Zhang and Wilson, 2013) and in laboratory tests (Wilson et al., 2008; Wilson, 2011).
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These processes have been associated with particular soil characteristics (e.g.

dispersibility or clay content), active subsurface water flows and slope gradients. In
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addition, in some cases where subsurface processes limited the efficiency of

conventional control practices such as check dams, specific conservation measures has

been successfully devised (Frankl et al., 2014).

In other studies, characteristics of the soil profile have been outlined to control

gully erosion dynamics. For example, studies have referred to contrasting resistance to

downcutting (Tuckfield, 1964; Prosser and Soufi, 1998; Wijdenes et al., 1999;

Oygarden, 2003; Rieke-Zapp and Nichols, 2011) and textural properties (Tuckfield,

1964; Moeyersons, 1991; Le Roux and Sumner, 2012). However, very few have

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analysed specifically the influence of the soil factor on gully erosion (e.g. Nachtergaele

and Poesen , 2002; Van Zijl et al., 2013).

The discontinuities in the underlying rock have been found to control gully

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initiation (Beavis, 2000; Parkner et al., 2007), bedrock resistance to establish the limit

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of incision (e.g. Wishart and Warburton, 2001; Boardman et al., 2003) and the

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dimensions of gully-cross sections (Zucca et al., 2006; Frankl et al., 2013a) and the

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lithological categories to be meaningful for gully distribution in the landscape (Gomez-

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Gutierrez et al., 2009a; Mararakanye and Le Roux, 2012; Voarinstoa et al., 2012). Gully

erosion has also been linked to seismic activity (e.g. Cox et al., 2010 in Madagascar).
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Sidewall erosion has drawn specific attention (Blong et al., 1982; Radoane et al.,

1995) and it has been considered a major contributor to gully erosion processes (De
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Rose et al., 1998; Wishart and Warburton, 2001; Martinez-Casasnovas et al., 2004;
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Thomas et al., 2009; Marden et al., 2005; Parkner et al., 2006). More recently, a number
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of model approaches (Istanbollouglu et al., 2005; Dong et al., 2011) and field or
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laboratory tests (Chaplot et al., 2011; Chen et al., 2013) have been carried out.

Nevertheless, the analysis of geotechnical conditions conducive to gully erosion has


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rarely been explored in the field (e.g. Piest et al., 1975).

The contribution of freeze-thaw processes (Ionita, 2006; Zhang et al., 2007; Hu

et al., 2007; Wu et al., 2008; Romanescu et al., 2012), soil cracking (Vandekerchove et

al., 2001; Wijdenes and Bryan, 2001), groundwater hydrology (Egboka, 1985; Faulkner,

1995; Betts et al., 2003; Tebebu et al., 2010; Okoyeh et al., 2014) and seepage forces

(De Oliveira, 1990; Bocco, 1993; Vandaele et al., 1997; Desmet et al., 1999; Daba et

al., 2003) has also been emphasized.

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In addition, among the studies on topographic thresholds for gully initiation

(commonly expressed in the form S·A-b, where S is the slope and A the drainage area at

the gully headcut) values of the exponent b below 0.2 have been considered as an

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indicator of subsurface processes (Morgan and Mngomezulu, 2003). Analysing all

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studies reporting topographic thresholds, 9 studies out of a total of 32 studies (28%) met

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this criterion (e.g. Vandekerchove et al., 1998; Desmet et al., 1999; Zucca et al., 2002;

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Vanwalleghem et al., 2003; Dong et al., 2013; Maugnard et al., 2014), a similar

percentage to that from literature references.

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3.1.6. Evolution of gully erosion severity in long-term studies
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Figure 8 shows a graphical depiction of temporal changes in gully erosion


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severity reported in long-term gully erosion studies (with a study period over 15 years)

around the world. It can be seen that recent gully erosion dynamics are far from
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constituting an homogeneous process globally, with different timing and alleged drivers
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of change. In Europe, the introduction of machinery in the middle of the 20th century is
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believed to be a major factor in recent gully erosion (e.g. Martinez-Casasnovas et al.,

2002; Gomez-Gutierrez et al., 2009b). In North and South America, the implementation

of soil and water conservation practices over the last decades has proved to be

successful in halting the degradation caused in former periods by grazing and cropland

pressures (e.g. Piest et al., 1975; Argüello et al, 2006). On the African continent,

population pressure and urbanization are major causes of environmental degradation,

but on-going conservation programmes are improving the situation, as in Ethiopia (e.g.

Nyssen et al., 2004; Frankl et al., 2011). Afforestation schemes and the reduction of

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grazing have diminished the severity of gully erosion in many areas of Australia and

Oceania (e.g. Parkner et al., 2006).

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Figure 8. Qualitative temporal evolution of gully erosion severity in long-term studies (> 15 years)
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included in the GULLY sample. Increasing levels of severity are indicated by darker colours. A symbol is
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included to show the factor reported to be the main driver of change in gully erosion severity (either

positive or negative) in the study area.


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Along with anthropic factors, natural causes can also play a relevant part in

gully erosion dynamics where extreme rainfall events take place (e.g. Parkner et al.,

2006), long-lasting droughts decimate protective vegetation (e.g. Nyssen et al., 2006),

incision exposes resistant layers hampering further deepening (e.g. Rieke-Zapp and

Nichols, 2011) or advancing headcuts gradually reduce the drainage area and therefore

water erosivity (Nachtergaele et al., 2002).

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3.2. Survey methodologies in studies on degradation rates in agricultural areas: the

QUADRA sample analysis

A total of 163 studies (totalling 172 survey data) were found to include

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measurements of morphological degradation rates from the most simple

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(unidimensional measurements) to the most complex (high-density 3D models), as

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indicated in Table 2. Of these, 66% were fieldwork-base studies and 33% desk-based

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(processing and analysis of digital elevation models, orthophotographies or satellite

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images not obtained from measurements in the study). 67% of the studies were carried

out on permanent gullies and 18% on ephemeral gullies at the catchment scale, whereas
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15% dealt with the gully headcut scale, respectively.

Regarding field studies, a quarter of them included one single measurement, half
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of them (55%) short-term series (< 5 years) and only 14% and 5% included data
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collected in the medium (5 - 15 years) and long-term (> 15 years) , respectively. In


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contrast, deskwork-based studies comprised 56% of long-term analyses, 26% were


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single and around 9% were either short- or medium-term studies.


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For those studies reporting only linear or areal evaluations, headward rates (in

25 studies), gully length and plan area (16) were the most frequent parameters, whereas

soil loss estimations from cross-sectional data was the most commonly employed

approach (33), followed by high-resolution surveys for volumetric calculations (19).

Although few studies (10) were based on discharge and sediment monitoring (e.g. Piest

et al., 1975; Crouch, 1990; Bufalo and Nahon, 1992; Desir and Marín, 2007; Thomas et

al., 2004) their findings have greatly contributed to the understanding of the short-term

evolution of sediment dynamics in gully networks.

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In Figure 9, the characteristics of the measurement strategies (number of surveys

as a proxy for survey frequency and the study period) are shown, differentiated by gully

erosion type (permanent or ephemeral) and survey methodology (field or desk) on a

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logarithmic scale. The line for annual frequency (in grey) indicates the theoretical value

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given by uninterrupted annual surveys over a specific study period. Studies plotting

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above this line include measurements for multiannual intervals and below it, surveys

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with frequencies higher than one per year. The greater the effort made in measurement

(a combination of frequency and time span), the more distant a measurement is plotted

from the origin of coordinates.


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Figure 9. Number of surveys against the survey period (years) for the studies in agricultural areas

including morphological degradation rates of gully erosion (QUADRA sample). Datasets have been

separated according to the type of gully erosion (permanent or ephemeral) and measurement methodology

(fieldwork-based or deskwork-based studies). Below, next to the horizontal axis, the total accumulated

percentage of studies below a certain number of surveys (<= 1, 2, 3, 5 and 10) is indicated. Several

outstanding studies owing to its study period and/or survey effort have been labelled.

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Half the field-based studies represent either single (origin of coordinates in the

plot) or paired surveys (before-after approach). Only 9% of the studies were found to

include more than 10 surveys: e.g. in permanent gullies, in the short-term (Luffman et

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al., 2015), in the medium-term (e.g. Avni, 2005; Marzolff and Ries, 2007; Marzolff et

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al., 2011; Gomez-Gutierrez et al., 2012) and in the long-term intervals (Thomas et al.,

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2004; Ionita, 2006). For ephemeral gullies 2 were found in the medium-term (Mirás-

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Avalos et al., 2009; Capra et al., 2012) and one for the long-term (18-years data, in

Capra and La Spada, 2015).

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As for desk-based works, most of them fall into the long-term category, and
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several include multiple surveys (e.g. Nachtergaele and Poesen, 1999; Vandekerchove

et al., 2003; Sonneveld et al., 2005; Keay-Bright and Boardman, 2006; Parkner et al.,
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2006) with the notable case of Frankl et al. (2011), encompassing 12 measurements
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over a period of 126 years in Ethiopia.


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3.3. Evaluation of specific soil losses from gully erosion in agricultural areas: the
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SOLO sample analysis

3.3.1. Gully erosion in the context of soil losses in agricultural areas

A total of 39 studies of permanent gully erosion and 21 of ephemeral gully

erosion were found to include specific soil losses (SSL) from gully erosion, amounting

together to approximately 37% of the QUADRA sample size and 16% of the GULLY

sample (Figure 10). A few datasets were not included in the analysis, such as those in

Singh and Agnihotri (1987), Crouch (1990), Watson and Evans (1991) and Wilson et al.

(2008), due to insufficient information on the catchment drainage area or where gully

erosion was not clearly separated from rill erosion, as in Alström and Akerman (1992).
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Where specific soil erosion rates were referred to the gullied area rather than to the

whole catchment (e.g. Martínez-Casasnovas, 2003; Grellier et al., 2012), they were

recalculated using the catchment area.

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The highest reported SSL values for permanent gullies correspond to De Rose et

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al. (1998) in New Zealand (77.5 mm·y-1 equivalent to 1,550 t·ha-1·y-1), Mieth and Bork

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(2005) in Eastern Island (44.2 mm·y-1, 398 t·ha-1·y-1), Tebebu et al. (2010) in northern

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Ethiopia (42.7 mm·y-1, 530 t·ha-1·y-1) , Peter et al. (2014) on agroindustrial plantations in

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land-levelled areas of southern Morocco (22.0 mm·y-1, 330 t·ha-1·y-1) and Martinez-

Casasnovas (2003) on vineyards in northeastern Spain (19.1 mm·y-1, 331 t·ha-1·y-1). As


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for ephemeral gullies, the worst degradation records are provided by Martinez-

Casasnovas (2002) in Spain on vineyards (16.6 mm·y-1, 207 t·ha-1·y-1) and in annual
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crops De Santisteban et al. (2006) in Spain (5.9 mm·y-1, 91 t·ha-1·y-1), Oygarden (2003)
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after an extreme rainfall event in Norway (3.7 mm·y-1, 56 t·ha-1·y-1) and Capra et al.

(2012) in Sicily with a 7 years-average of 2.3 mm·y-1 and an annual maximum of 7.2
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mm·y-1.

Figure 10 depicts the cumulative probability curve of average SSL data from
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permanent gully erosion (in black) and ephemeral gully erosion (in gray) in the present

study, compared to soil losses from conventional agriculture (dotted line) as compiled

by Montgomery (2007). This work included rates of erosion from conventional


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agriculture in studies using Cs and soil-loss data from both experimental plots and

field-scale investigations, as well as longer-term studies based on deposition in closed

basins, soil profile truncation and elevated cemetery plots. The list of publications used

as sources of agricultural erosion rates provided in that study as supporting information

was consulted and only two articles (Vandaele and Poesen, 1995; De Santisteban et al.,

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2006) were used in both studies (present work and Montgomery’s). Therefore, both

publications samples can be considered independent.

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Figure 10. Comparison of reported specific soil losses (mm·year-1) in studies from conventional
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agriculture (Montgomery, 2007) and from permanent and ephemeral gully erosion in agricultural areas

(present study´s SOLO sample) expressed as the cumulative probability of reaching a soil loss value. The
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plot shows the standard deviation of specific soil losses for each study when multiple years or study areas

were provided. The medians are shown as white circles and a maximum soil loss tolerance of 1 mm·year-1

is depicted (Montgomery, 2007).

SSL rates from gully erosion plot clearly above those of conventional agriculture

curve with a median value (50% probability) of 2.1 mm·y-1 against ~1 mm·y-1 for the

latter. Conversely, SSL from ephemeral gully erosion are lower than those in

conventional agriculture showing a median of 0.6 mm·y-1. This means that roughly two

thirds of permanent gully erosion studies were above the maximum tolerable limit of

soil losses (normally considered between 0.4-1 mm·y-1, Montgomery, 2007), in contrast

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with this happening for half of the studies in conventional agriculture or a quarter of

them in ephemeral gullies.

Error bars are shown depicting the plus/minus standard deviation around the

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mean of the data series with multiple data. Regarding the length of the SSL series (years

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for multiannual studies or number of study sites for multispatial analyses), 33 studies

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from the SOLO sample contained multiple data, 21 of them concerning time series

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(either annual or multiannual intervals) and 12 encompassing SSL in different study

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areas (different gullies in one work). The longest time series included 12 annual SSL

values in Desir and Marín (2007), 11 in Capra et al. (2009a) and 8 in Piest et al. (1975),
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while for spatial series there were up to 24 in Oygarden (2003), 11 in Valcarcel et al.

(2003), 7 in Nyssen et al. (2006) and 6 in Casalí et al. (1999). A high SSL variability
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was found in these data series, with the highest values corresponding to the spatial
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series (SSL scattering across up to 3 orders of magnitude) when compared with multiple

annual series (2-orders- of-magnitude variability in some datasets).


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3.3.2. Relationship between specific soil losses, catchment size and rainfall
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Clear decreasing trends of SSL for increasing drainage areas were found for the

datasets corresponding to permanent gullies in the short-term and ephemeral gullies

with the catchment size ranging across 5 orders of magnitude (0.1 ha to 100 km2, Fig.

11a and 11c). In contrast, for the case of long-term estimates in permanent gullies the

correlation was not so apparent, probably due to the considerable impact of land use

change over several decades as we analysed in Fig. 8, as well as the existence of three

outstanding cases regarding exceptionally high SSL (Fig. 11b). This is a particular

manifestation of the well-known decreasing trend of sediment yield with drainage basin

area (Walling, 1983; Walling and Webb, 1986) that was already reported in gully

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erosion studies in particular settings such as Spanish catchments (Poesen et al., 2003)

and the Belgian loess Belt (Vanwalleghem et al., 2005b).

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Figure 11. The effect of the catchment size on specific soil losses (SSL) from gully erosion in logarithmic
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scale. a) the SSL dataset for permanent gullies in the short-term (<= 5years); b) permanent gullies in the
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medium and lon-term (> 5 years); c) Ephemeral gullies; d) All datasets. For multispatial datasets, all

catchments were included in the analysis. Points 1,2 and 3 correspond to studies with extreme long-term
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gully erosion by De Rose et al. (1998), Martínez-Casasnovas (2003) and Marden et al. (2005)

respectively.

Figure 12 shows the relationship between rainfall depth and specific soil losses

for those studies reporting this information on an event basis, all belonging to

ephemeral gullies. Despite the positive correlation and a coefficient of determination of

R2 = 0.67, a large variability can be found in the erosion response to rain depth owing to

a range of potential factors such as antecedent soil moisture conditions (Casalí et al.,

1999; Capra et al., 2002), soil conservation measures (Casalí et al., 1999), land

management or catchment size among others. Using the drainage area along with the

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rainfall of the event, the goodness of fit for a potential function improved slightly

(SSLpredicted = 2·10-4·P2.1·A-0.07, R2 = 0.73).

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Figure 12. Specific soil losses (mm soil) at the event scale reported in studies on ephemeral gullies and its

relation with the rain depth of the event in mm (linear regression, R2 = 0.67). The interval of rainfall
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thresholds for ephemeral erosion reported by previous authors (Poesen et al., 2003; Capra, 2013) is

indicated.

3.3.4. Relationship between specific soil losses and gully dimensions

When plotting maximum gully depth against average SSL in those studies

providing such information (Figure 13), a positive correlation was found, pointing to the

hypothesis that deeper gullies tend to produce greater soil losses.

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Figure 13. Plot of maximum gully depth against mean SSL for studies belonging to the SOLO sample
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providing both measurements (n=28) distinguishing between short-term studies (<=5 years), medium-
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term studies (5 - 15 years) and long-term studies (> 15 years). The study by Rodzik et al. (2009) is

labelled as an illustration of fairly stable large gully systems (currently under forest) formed under past
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erosive conditions, where this correlation does not hold.


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This correlation is expected to be intrinsically valid in long-term studies in


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active gullies, since gully dimensions are affected accumulatively by erosion in a

mutually reinforcing loop. For this reason, data have been plotted specifying the time

category (short, medium or long-term estimates). Thus, focusing on short-term studies

where this mutual influence does not operate, a similar correlation trend seems to be

plausible. On the other hand, for current stabilised gullies formed in historical times,

this relationship is unlikely to hold true, due to the lack of synchronicity between the

current dimensions derived from the accumulative effects of past erosive episodes and

present-day low erosion rates (e.g. Rodzik et al., 2009).

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4. Discussion

4.1. Urgency

Gully erosion is a serious environmental concern due to its ubiquity and severity

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(Billi and Dremis, 2003; Fig. 4), whatever the climate or lithology (Figure 5). In many

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countries, gully erosion has been reported to be reaching alarming dimensions, and in an

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overwhelming majority of cases, it is linked to unsustainable human activities (Smolska,

2007). The development and intensification of agriculture (either annual crops, orchards

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or pastures) without conservation practices is mainly responsible for the onset of the

imbalance between erosivity and resistance, with vegetation in waterways playing a


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central role in this protection (Prosser and Slade, 1994). On the other hand, forest areas

are not safe from this threat, since clearing, burning or road construction can frequently
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damage the vegetative cover, thus facilitating the conditions leading to gully erosion.
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Only on a few occasions have natural factors in fragile environments been proposed as
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the main causal factors, rather than human mismanagement (e.g. Wells and
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Andriamihaja, 1993 .
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The magnitude of this environmental problem is exemplified by the fact that

permanent gully erosion significantly exceeds the rates of soil losses reported under

conventional agriculture, which are already well above the rates of soil formation (Fig.

10). In an increasingly malnourished world, where millions of hectares of the best land

available are lost to soil erosion (Pimentel and Burguess, 2013), gully erosion stands out

as one of the worst aspects of land degradation. Over 10% of the land has been lost in

some fields of Nigeria (Idike, 1992), South Africa (Liggit and Fincham, 1989; Keay-

Bright and Boardman, 2006), Swaziland (Morgan and Mngomezulu, 2003), New

Zealand (De Rose et al., 1998; Marden et al., 2012), Australia (Shellberg et al., 2013),

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Ehiopia (Daba et al., 2010), Eastern Island (Mieth and Bork, 2005), United States

(Perroy et al., 2010), Tunisia (El Maaoui and Felfoul, 2012), Poland (Rodzic et al.,

2011) and Spain (Martinez-Casasnovas et al., 2002). Furthermore, gully erosion occurs

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simultaneously to other forms of erosion (Di Stefano et al., 2016; Seutloali and

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Beckedahl, 2015; Martínez-Murillo et al., 2013), adding up to the total magnitude of

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soil losses, and it is not frequently evaluated in global reports on soil erosion which

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make these rates likely to be underestimated, especially on highly degraded areas.

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4.2. Complexity

Gully erosion has not been a homogeneous process in time or intensity


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everywhere. Depending on the evolution of land management (e.g. grazing intensity,

implementation of conservation practices at hillslopes and waterways) and natural


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perturbations (e.g. extreme rainfall events and droughts, as shown in Fig. 8), gully
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erosion can be accelerated, sustained or effectively halted. If human influence typically


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acts as a trigger for the initiation of gully erosion, land susceptibility can contribute
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greatly to its exacerbation, with erodible soils, soft lithologies, proneness to slope

instability or hydrogeological configurations promoting profile saturation and seepage.


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Despite the fact that subsurface processes have not been extensively analysed as a main

topic, many gully erosion studies regard them as active players in gully erosion

dynamics (Fig. 7).

What differentiates gully erosion from other forms of soil degradation, apart

from being the result of a high flow concentration in drainage waterways, is the fact that

it is a deep process. The conventional limit between rill and gullies of 0.3 m depth is

likely to mark approximately the beginning of influence of deep-profile properties in the

erosion equation, giving rise to a wide range of subsurface phenomena with a typically

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greater variability and difficulty in assessment compared to surface dynamics. We also

found an empirical basis to support that deep morphologies tend to produce larger

specific soil losses in some conditions (permanent gullies over ephemeral gullies and

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larger permanent gullies over smaller, Fig. 13), similarly to other authors´ findings such

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as Vanwalleghem et al. (2005b) comparing erosion rates in deep and shallow gullies

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formed under cropland on loess-derived soils in Belgium or Castillo (2012) reporting

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higher SSL in permanent gullies than ephemeral gullies annually filled by tillage on

vertisols in Souther Spain. This is at odds with other studies stating naturally declining

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trends in gully evolution when ephemeral gullies remain unmodified (Nachtergaele et
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al., 2002; Gordon et al., 2008; Capra and La Spada, 2015). Further studies should focus

on what conditions (e.g. subsurface constraints, land management, degree of

revegetation success) may lead to these contrasting results since this issue has
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implications not only on the interpretation of our measurements, but also on the best

strategy for prevention and restoration measures to implement.


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Not only gully dimensions, but also catchment size plays a role in the magnitude

of specific soil losses (Fig. 11). In this case again, ephemeral and permanent gully
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erosion behave differently, with the first one occupying lower drainage areas. Thus, the

interpretation of degradation rates should be put into context by considering the spatial

scale. For this purpose, it is essential for gully erosion to be studied from a network

perspective inside the hydrological context of its drainage basin. However, it is not

infrequent that the catchment area is not provided which hampers comparisons among

different sites.

Whereas rainfall indexes have shown to explain a large amount of gully erosion

variability at the annual and event scales (e.g. up to 70% in Capra et al., 2009), they

have been rarely applied especially in permanent gully erosion studies (Marzolff et al.,

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2011; Shellberg et al., 2013). While the total rain depth value of the event has been

mostly used (Fig. 12), better results were obtained by using proxies of antecedent

moisture (Capra et al., 2011) or complementing with actual soil moisture measurements

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(Casalí et al., 1999).

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Overall, gully erosion appears as a highly complex phenomenon both in its

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temporal and spatial dimension requiring for its detailed assessment a range of

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measurement, monitoring and analytic methodologies to be applied in long-standing

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survey programmes. MA
4.3. Study approaches
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Gully erosion research has been evolving through time as the knowledge on the
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discipline expanded. It has received greater attention among researchers during recent
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decades, gaining weight as a relevant field of study within the soil erosion discipline but
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still accounting for less than 10% of the publications (Fig. 3).

Most of the efforts have been made on measurement-based studies, but have
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been gradually leaving space to other approaches such as models or laboratory

experiments or, more recently, predictive studies based on environmental variables

(Table 1; Fig. 6). Although more profusely during the first stages of gully erosion

research, qualitative studies (overviews and general descriptions) show a non-negligible

share (5.3%) of total studies. A singular attention has been paid to the headcut scale, as

can be inferred by the number of models on headcut evolution or laboratory setups

(maximum number of publications in their category). Overall, considering this trend

along with topographic thresholds analyses, it seems that comparatively a bigger effort

has been directed towards gully initiation than to the assessment of whole gully
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networks which might explain the publication of comprehensive reviews on both topics

taking advantage of the breadth of data available (Torri and Poesen, 2014; Vanmaercke

et al., 2016).

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With regard to measurement-based studies, quantifying degradation rates and

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evaluating the influence of factors and processes have been the main study topics.

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However, from 2006 onwards an apparent shift towards methodological approaches

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have taken place. Interestingly, running in paralell, the focus on subsurface processes

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shows a clear decrease (Fig. 7), even more significant during 2014-2015 (below 10%).

Simple morphological measurements have been dominant, with linear/areal


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estimations accounting for 53% of the degradation rates analyses and an additional 20%

for gully volume calculations based on 2D measurements (Table 2). A considerable


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collection of studies include only very simple evaluations (such as the length or average
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cross-sections dimensions) while monitoring setups for discharge and sediment are
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infrequent. On the other hand, the application of remote sensing techniques (e.g.
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photogrammetry, LiDAR, satellite and airborne images, 3D photo-reconstruction) and

advanced GIS tools have contributed greatly to produce high-resolution datasets,


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although frequently as single surveys.

In addition, there is still a low number of studies providing long-term data with a

high survey frequency which could help to describe reliably the importance of gully

erosion given its wide variability. On the one hand, half of the studies (50%) on

degradation rates included single or paired surveys while only few works reported field

data over a period of 10 years or more with annual or subannual frequencies (Fig. 9). On

the other hand, the several orders-of-magnitude SSL variability can only be understood

by collecting long data series given the contrasting differences among different years

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due to, for instance, the rainfall unpredictibility or frequent changes in management

practices. A comparable spatial variability was also found for retreat rates on headcuts

at the global scale (Vanmaercke et al., 2016).

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Our results suggest that current research trends are moving towards more

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sophisticated surface analyses while at the same we might be paying less attention to the

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analysis of basic processes underlying gully erosion dynamics. For that reason, it is

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worth emphasizing that we still need classic field work to be carried out in order to

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appraise quantitatively the subsurface susceptibility to gully erosion with regards to

resistance to incision, permeability conditions or slope instability across the soil profile.
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This might involve bringing to our field other frequently-used measurement

methodologies which are already commonplace in other disciplines such geotechnics or


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hydrogeology, as has occurred in only a minority of gully erosion studies (e.g. Piest et
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al., 1975; Nachtergaele and Poesen, 2002; Thomas et al., 2004). Survey methodologies

should keep improving, in order to provide, besides detailed time and spatial
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measurements of gully morphology, other key parameters such as water discharge and

sediment yield, which are still scarce in the literature.


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Much less research emphasis has been put to gully control than to gully erosion

dynamics (4.2%, Table 1), despite the fact that implementing a solution to the problem

might be the reason behind most of the research endeavours. Previous successes show

that it is within our means to provide an effective solution to the problem, though it is

still necessary to design cost-effective approaches which can be widely adopted by

farmers (Nyssen et al., 2004; Moges and Holden, 2008; Castillo et al., 2014b; Kou et

al., 2015; Ayele et al., 2016; Ben Slimane et al., 2016) or develop innovative solutions

for specific conditions (Frankl. et al., 2014).

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5. Conclusions

After roughly one century of scientific studies (170 years from Lyell´s gully

descriptions, 88 years from Rubey´s and 77 from Ireland´s publications), gully erosion

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research has reached a stage of maturity, where a lot has been accomplished. Its

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relevance as a major driver of land degradation on the global scale cannot be

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underestimated in the light of the number of countries severely affected and the

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magnitude of soil erosion rates, exceeding those from conventional agriculture.

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Sustainable agricultural practices need to be effectively implemented right from the

early stages of gully erosion especially in vulnerable areas by reason of rainfall


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erosivity, soft lithologies, erodible soils or unfavourable conditions to vegetation

establishment.
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Gully erosion long-recognised complexity involves, among other aspects, its


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multicausal and non-coincidental initiation, scale-dependent behaviour, interannual


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variability due to climate forcings and dependence on deep-profile properties.


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Subsurface processes, although frequently described, are only occasionally analysed in

quantitative terms and have been gradually receiving less attention. Moreover, many
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studies are based on short-term simple morphological measurements which can only

poorly describe the temporal and spatial variability of the multiple processes operating

in gully erosion dynamics.

Further efforts are still necessary to improve our knowledge, such as building

longer data series with consistent survey frequencies, detailed rainfall and hydrological

monitoring, quantitative evaluation of subsurface factors, design and appraisal of

control strategies and standardisation of methodologies and degradation rates for

unifying criteria and interpretation of results. All of these advances would be highly

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beneficial to support plans and programmes for effective control measures. However,

conversely, greater efforts to put gully erosion high on the agenda are also needed,

which would facilitate sustained funding for improved research approaches to tackle

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such a complex and urgent environmental issue.

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6. Acknowledgements

This study was partly supported by project AGL2012-40128-C03-01 (Spanish Ministry

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of Science and Innovation) and by FEDER funds. This support is gratefully
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acknowledged.
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Table 1. Classification of gully erosion studies (GULLY sample) by main topic, with total number and percentage. Each study has been included in only one topic. The topics

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and subtopics are presented in decreasing order of number of publications. ‘Varied’ refers to those studies analysing several topics or subtopics simultaneously where it was

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not possible to assign one specific category.

CR
Category Main topic Subtopic Number Category Main topic Number

US
SHORT TERM
53 HEADCUT 12
< 5 years

N
DEGRADATION LONG TERM
32 2. MODELS PERMANENT GULLIES 10
> 15 years

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RATES
34 (8.8%)
117 (30.4%) HISTORICAL 19 EPHEMERAL GULLIES 7
MEDIUM TERM
13 BANKS 5
5 - 15 years

D
TOPOGRAPHY 24
3. PREDICTION INDEXES MULTIFACTORIAL 19

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VARIED 24 31 (8.1%)
ANTHROPIC 9 TOPOGRAPHIC 12

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RAINFALL 7 HEADCUT 7

1. MEASUREMENT
253 (65.7%) BANKS
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LAND USE 5
5
4. LABORATORY
SUBSURFACE
EPHEMERAL GULLIES
6
5
22 (5.7%)
FACTORS &
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PROCESSES SUBSURFACE 4 VEGETATION 3
89 (23.1%) SOIL 3 BANKS 1

5. QUALITATIVE STUDIES
HYDRAULICS 3 20
20 (5.2%)

GROUNDWATER 4
CHECK DAMS 5
EARTHQUAKES 1
LITHOLOGY 1 6. CONTROL VARIED 5
16 (4.2%)
METHODOLOGY TECHNIQUES 16 VEGETATION 4
41 (10.6%)
DELINEATION 11 COST 2

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MORPHOLOGY 10
SPECIFIC 5
ERRORS 4

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7. REVIEWS
SOIL PROPERTIES 2

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EFFECTS 9 (2.3%)
PRODUCTIVITY 2 GENERAL 4
5 (1.3%)

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COST 1

N US
MA
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Table 2. Classification of publications in agricultural areas measuring variables of degradation rates (QUADRA sample) for gully erosion (linear, areal or volumetric) on

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different spatial scales showing the number of studies falling into each category in brackets. Darker shaded backgrounds indicate a larger number of studies. L: gully length;

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A: gully plan area; Density: drainage density; XS: cross-sectional profiles; HR: headcut advance rate; AG: areal growth; SL-XS: soil losses estimated for cross-sectional data;

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SL-LD: soil losses estimated from low-resolution elevation models; SL-HD: soil losses estimated from high-resolution elevation models.

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MORPHOLOGICAL DEGRADATION RATES

N
Linear/Areal (85) Volumetric (76)

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SPATIAL TIME TYPE L, A W, D Density XS HR AG SL: XS SL: LD SL: HD SL: sed. yield

Single Field 1 1

D
(2) Desk

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Short Field 4 3 1 2 2
(12) Desk
HEADCUT

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(26) Field 3 2
Medium
(6) Desk
CE 1
Long Field 1 1
AC

(6) Desk 2 1 1
Single Field
(2) Desk 2
Short Field 1 1 15 2 1 1
EPHEMERAL
GULLY (23) Desk 2
(30) Field
Medium
(3) Desk 1 2
Long Field

81
ACCEPTED MANUSCRIPT

(2) Desk 1 1
Field 1 8 10 1 5

T
Single
(38) Desk

IP
7 1 3 2
Short Field 1 3 9 5 4 5

CR
PERMANENT (30) Desk 2 1
GULLY
(110) Medium Field 1 1 3 4 2

US
(12) Desk 1
Long Field 1 1 1 1

N
(30) Desk 1 1 4 10 5 1 4

MA
Total 16 12 7 11 25 16 33 17 19 10

D
P TE
CE
AC

82