RheinLUCIFS project summary




Holocene Sediment Fluxes and Sediment Budgets in the Upper Rhine Area


Research team:  P. Houben, M. Schmidt, K.-M. Moldenhauer, H. Thiemeyer, J. Wunderlich,

Supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) (2003-2007). Part of the German IGBP-PAGES research initiative 'RheinLUCIFS'.



Project summary

Current changes of terrestrial and coastal environments are attributed to a changing climate and intensified land use. River catchments play a key role within the environmental system of terrestrial mass fluxes. Water, sediment and biogeochemical compounds are collected, stored, transported and yielded by catchment processes. However, basic quantitative properties of erosion, transfer, storage and delivery of particulate matter considerably vary in space and time. The Rhine catchment is one of the world’s large river catchment that is tremendously affected by human interferences for several millennia of land use.

However, studies on catchment-scale fluxes of particulate matter from hillslopes to streams and further downstream to the Rhine delta are still rare. Thus we present a study that unravels the quantitative magnitude of man-induced sediment flux in agricultural catchments since the start of agriculture. The results include unprecedented information about rates of man-induced sediment production, temporal storage and sediment transfers within and export from subcatchments of the Upper Rhine area.

The results of our project work include:

  1. Datamodeling techniques for sediment budgeting: development and evaluation of methods which extract relevant information from available spatially distributed soil data (scaled 1: 25,000 to 1: 50,000);
  2. Sediment budgets for Rockenberg catchment based on different approaches to datamodeling;
  3. A field-based empirical sediment budget for Rockenberg catchment;
  4. A field-based empirical sediment budget for the Tannenberg subcatchment of the Stettbach catchment;
  5. A large-scale sediment budget for Nidda catchment based on datamodeling;
  6. Budgets of carbon storage and transfer for both Rockenberg catchment and Stettbach subcatchment.

Man-induced soil erosion and within-catchment transfers are summing up to an impressive magnitude over the period of agriculture and for large-scale catchments. For example, more than one billion tons of particulate matter has been detached from the soils of the Nidda catchment (1942 sqkm). The investigation also demonstrated that the larger portion of sediments produced is still residing in the catchment.

The numbers calculated for the investigated Rockenberg catchment (10 sqkm) can be regarded as representative for loess-covered agricultural catchments of low relief. For the past seven millennia nearly 10,000 tons per hectare have been removed by man-induced soil erosion. More than 60 % of sediments that were produced are resting on hillslopes. In this particular catchment, high sediment production rates but low net erosion rates caused the generation of a thick sedimentary cover on hillslopes. From a farmer’s point of view, this colluvial cover shows improved soil productivity for crop production when compared to pristine soils. It can be concluded that for this type of low-relief catchment man-induced soil erosion is less significant in terms of loss and export of material. By contrast, in steeper sloping upland catchments soil erosion endangers the preservation of fertile soil surfaces. The effect of topography can be illustrated by comparing the mean residence time of sediments in catchments. Whereas the mean residence time for hillslope sediments in the low-relief catchment is 18,000 years, the average interval of sediment storage is only 320 years in the studied badland-like upland catchment.

The calculations are based on a systems approach defining catchment-scale sediment budgets for the period of agriculture in question. Datamodeling techniques for deriving large-scale sediment budgets at spatial scales of 102 to 103 sqkm were developed. We focused on advanced GIS and database applications for data processing of spatially distributed soil data. An empirical sediment budget that relies on independently retrieved field-based data served as validation data. In combination with age determination of sediments this study provides more detailed information on variations of sediment flux in space and time in an exemplary manner.



Project affiliation



  • Our scientific objectives are dedicated to questions of variable sensitivity, non-linear behaviour at various spatial and temporal scale, and system emergence in fluvial systems. We pursuit a quantitative whole-catchment, systems-based approach that aims linking empirical and modeling approaches.


  • exploring past to present response of fluvial systems to human activities and climate change
  • Holocene sediment budgets for different scaled catchments in the Upper Rhine area
  • developing budget approaches based on available digital data
  • data evaluation of available spatially distributed data on soils and sediments
  • chronological resolution of man-induced catchment fluxes for the period of agriculture (i.e. 7500 yrs.)
  • delivering a spatially and temporally resolved model of Holocene sediment flux as influenced by man and climate




  • Systems-based approaches (cascading system)
  • sediment budgets
  • Bottom-up strategy for data evaluation: cross-checking of budget approaches derived from


  • datamodeling of available data: DB application and GIS based data processing techniques
  • available digital data: topographical, soil maps, and geological maps (1:25,000), DEMs, aerial photographs and orthophotos, etc.
  • Field based soils and sediments recording
  • DB and GIS applications
  • OSL dating with cross-check by radiocarbon dating



  • Holocene sediment budget for the large-scale Nidda catchment; derived from the state authority soil survey data;
  • Derived sediment budgets for 95 subcatchments of 2nd to 5th order and different physiographic settings;


Next steps

  • Numerical modeling of slope-slope fluxes (WaTEM/SEDEM applications)


  • Houben, P. (in prep.). An empirical Holocene sediment budget for Rockenberg catchment, Germany. –
  • Houben, P., Henning, J. (in prep.). From landscape occupation to landscape management - Early Medieval cultivation innovation causing the primal large-scale landscape change in Central Europe.
  • Houben, P., & Schmidt, M. (submitted). Data modeling and relational database application in a GIS-based Holocene sediment budget study. Catena.
  • Hofmann, T., Erkens, G., Cohen, K., Houben, P., Seidel, J., Dikau, R. (in review). Holocene floodplain sediment storage and hillslope erosion within the Rhine catchment. Holocene.
  • Houben, P., Hoffmann, T., Zimmermann, A., Dikau, R. 2006. Land use and climatic impacts on the Rhine system during the period of agriculture. Catena, 66: 42–52.
  • Dikau, R., Houben, P., Schrott, L. 2005. Der Sedimenthaushalt geomorphologischer Systeme seit Beginn des menschlichen Einflusses. – In: Deutscher Arbeitskreis für Geomorphologie (Ed.): Die Erdoberfläche, Lebens- und Gestaltungsraum des Menschen - Forschungsstrategische und programmatische Leitlinien zukünftiger geomorphologischer Forschung und Lehre: 31–38; Preprint, Heidelberg.
  • Lang, A., Bork, H.-R., Mäckel, R., Preston, N., Wunderlich, J., & Dikau, R. (2003): Changes in sediment flux and storage within a fluvial system: some examples from the Rhine catchment. - Hydrol. Proc., 17: 3321-3334.


We gratefully acknowledge the DFG for funding this project as part of the RheinLUCIFS initiative.