UND graduate student Rick Thalacker uses high-resolution GIS data to pinpoint soil erosion


Kate Menzies

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UND graduate student Rick Thalacker uses high-resolution GIS data to pinpoint soil erosion

Nothing wears away profits quite like erosion.

Between sediment buildup in streams and loss of topsoil in fields, soil erosion can have detrimental effects on communities across North Dakota.

University of North Dakota geography graduate student Rick Thalacker was keen to this fact. He knew that in a state where agriculture is a primary source of income, soil erosion needed further study. So he turned to Gregory Vandeberg, associate professor of geography at UND and an expert in the power of GIS technology.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology is used to study spatial data, such as erosion patterns, by gathering high-resolution data to mark changes in elevation, slope and soil type. By pinpointing areas with drastic changes in slope and elevation, GIS technology can identify areas that are more prone to erosion due to the accumulation of runoff.

Soil erosion, in its simplest terms, is the wearing away of a field's topsoil by water and wind. Once topsoil disappears, it can take a lifetime to build up again. For farmers, this can result in lost profits, as a field is no longer arable.

Sediment runoff is a source of "nonpoint pollution" that can have lasting effects on water quality. The buildup of sediment in the depths of reservoirs eventually will raise the bottom level, reducing the effective volume of water the reservoir can hold. This has a substantial economic impact on cities that have to pay to drain and dredge dams so reservoirs can hold their designed water capacity.

Thalacker has devoted considerable time and effort pinpointing erosion areas in fields that could deposit sediment in local water sources. The hope is that by identifying erosion-prone areas early, farmers and citizens alike can take preventive measures to stop it from spreading. Water impairment has become an issue of global concern. By harnessing GIS technology, countries around the world will be able to improve quality of life.

Thalacker secured funding for his research from the North Dakota Water Resources Research Institute in the form of a fellowship. His research has let him access more accurate methods of applying GIS technology to harness spatial data. Two watersheds were used for this study. One was located entirely in Grand Forks County and the other was in the northwest corner of Grand Forks County, extending into both Nelson and Walsh Counties.

Using high-resolution elevation data obtained previously by federal and state agencies to combat local flooding, Thalacker and Vandeberg created an affordable method to map erosion potential in these watersheds on a more detailed scale. This allowed them to measure even the slightest changes in elevation. When dealing with extremely flat areas, such as the Red River Valley, this detail is important, as other tools were not able to measure this.

Overall, the model was able to accurately predict where gully locations intersect with stream channels. These erosion features adjacent to local streams have a high potential for impacting the waterways. Thalacker and Vandeberg hope to work with soil conservation districts in the future to target preventive erosion techniques in detrimental areas.

Preventive techniques such as changing crop direction, plowing fields differently and planting vegetation along gullies can help farmers exercise best-management practices, Thalacker said.

The hope is that, with the help of GIS technology, the fertile soil of North Dakota can be conserved for years to come.

Kate Menzies University & Public Affairs student writer

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