With reference to 18 tephra isochrones, we present six reconstructions of landscapes in South Iceland at precise times through the last 1200 years and develop three related models of soil erosion. Before the late ninth century A.D., the landscapes of Iceland were without people and resilient to natural processes. The initial impact of human settlement in the ninth century AD was most profound in ecologically marginal areas, where major anthropogenic modifications of the ecology drove geomorphological change. In the uplands, overgrazing contributed to the formation of a dense patchwork of breaks in the vegetation cover where soil erosion developed and resulted in the rapid denudation of large areas. As the upland soils were shallow (generally <0.5 m), the overall impact of erosion on total aeolian sediment fluxes before AD 1510 was modest. Later erosion of the deeper lowland soils (generally >2 m) involved a lower spatial density of eroding fronts and a slower loss of soil cover, but a much greater movement of sediment. Land-management strategies, changes in species patterns of plant communities, extreme weather events, and climate changes have combined in differing degrees to initiate and drive rates of soil erosion. Sensitivity to change and the crossing of erosion thresholds has varied through time. The record of soil erosion has major implications for both archaeology and contemporary land management.
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Vol. 2 • No. 1