• soil erosion;
  • erosion plots;
  • measurement variability;
  • field methods;
  • spatial pattern;
  • scale-dependence;
  • exhaustion of material


An understanding of the sources of variation in the use of erosion plots and of their feasibility to meet the objectives of each specific research project is key to improving future field designs, selecting data for modelling purposes and furthering knowledge of soil erosion processes. Our own field experiences from ongoing research on soil erosion processes since 1989, have allowed us to detect several methodological problems that cause measurement variability. Here several examples are presented concerning: (i) differences in long-term soil erosion data between open and closed plots; (ii) differences in soil loss derived from replica soil erosion plots; and (iii) differences in soil loss data derived from plots at a range of spatial scales. Closed plots are not the most suitable method for long-term monitoring of soil erosion rates due to the risk of exhaustion of available material within the plot. The difference in time after which exhaustion occurs depends on the surface soil characteristics, the climatological conditions and the size of the plots. We detected four and seven years as ‘time to exhaustion’. Different results are frequently obtained between pairs of replica plots. Differences up to a factor of nine have been detected in total soil loss between replica plots due to different spatial patterns of surface components. Different constraints appear depending on the spatial scale of measurement of soil loss. We obtained lower runoff percentages at coarser scales; however, larger sediment concentrations are observed at coarser scales (1·32 g l−1, catchment; 0·30 g l−1, 30 m2; 0·17 g l−1, 1 m2 scales). The smaller the plot, the larger the hydrological disconnection within the system, the lower the energy flows due to short distances and the quicker the response to runoff due to an artificial decrease of concentration times for continuous flow. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.