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on the environment


Land use (Austria)

Why should we care about this issue

Land Land
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Environment Agency Austria
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Environment Agency Austria
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Last updated
21 Dec 2010
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Environment Agency Austria
Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 21 Dec 2010 original


Austria includes a variety of different soil types influenced by different climatic conditions. Its location in the middle of Europe gives rise to specific environmental issues, notably significant impacts from transit traffic and air pollution.

Additionally, 63% of the national territory is under permanent risk of natural hazards like floods, debris flows and avalanches. Only 37% of national territory is suitable for permanent settlement and that is under high pressure from competing land uses.


The variety of landscapes, altitude and climate engenders a diversity of vegetation. In the mountains, forests help prevent debris flows, avalanches and flooding.

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The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 21 Dec 2010 original


Figure 1: Development of settlement area per capita in comparison with population growth. Source: BMFLUW 2008a.

Data source
Figure 1: Development of settlement area per capita in comparison with population growth. Source: BMFLUW 2008a.
Fullscreen image Original link

Figure 3: Erosion protection measures on agricultural land, 1998-2007 (National sustainability indicator BO3). Source: BMLFUW 2009b

Data source
Figure 3: Erosion protection measures on agricultural land, 1998-2007  (National sustainability indicator BO3).  Source: BMLFUW 2009b
Fullscreen image Original link

Figure 2 Percentage of sealed land, 1995-2009, as percentage of the permanent residential space. Source: BMFLUW 2009.

Data source
Figure 2 Percentage of sealed land, 1995-2009, as percentage of the permanent residential space. Source: BMFLUW 2009.
Fullscreen image Original link

A snapshot of Austria's soil status.


Overall, the Austrian soils are in a good condition, but their ecological functionality is at risk from diffuse and local accumulation of pollutants, intensive use of land, sealing and erosion. Significantly affected areas are either located in the Alpine region, where forest soils are threatened by air deposition, or in urban areas by sealing and contamination. Sealing is also present in rural areas due to increasing urban sprawl and new road construction.

Sealing. About one third of Austria's settlement areas is actually sealed. Average settlement area per person increased by 160% between 1950 and 2007 from 200 to 520 m per person whereas in the same period population grew by only 20% from 6.9 to 8.3 million (Figure 1). The increase mainly occurred at the expense of arable land and pastures.

In 2009, buildings and transport infrastructure covered 4,415 km, corresponding to 15% of the permanent residential space (Umweltbundesamt 2009d). About 32% of this area is sealed.


Figure 2 shows the development of soil sealing between 1995 and 2008. The sealing rate is presented as a percentage of the permanent residential space. Between 1995 and 2008, the sealed area increased from 4% to 6% of the permanent settlement area.

The Austrian strategy of sustainable development (BMLFUW 2007) refers to a reduction target of 1 hectare sealed soil per day to be reached by 2010 but current trends are far above this. If the threeyear period 20072009 is compared with the previous period 20042007, only the Provinces Vorarlberg, Salzburg and Vienna show lower consumption rates in the second period.

(When interpreting trends based on regional information uncertainty and timelag of data used has to be expressly mentioned.)


Diffuse contamination. Soil surveys of four heavy metals mercury, lead, cadmium and copper showed increased lead and cadmium concentrations in topsoil in the Northern and Southern Limestone Alps. (see Maps of the distribution of heavy metal contents in topsoil). This may be attributed both to local sources of pollution and to longrange transboundary air pollution.


Lead enrichment is particularly relevant in grassland and forest soils in the latter due to the high filtering effect of the vegetation cover. In such sites, the guidance values for lead established by the Austrian Standard (NORM 2004a) were exceeded in more than 5% and 3% of the monitored sites respectively.
Cadmium concentrations exceeded the guidance value in 5% of the monitoring sites in forests and 6% in grassland areas.


Copper and mercury pollution only occurs in restricted areas such as those surrounding industrial sites that process copper ore and in areas with intensive animal husbandry (BORIS 2009). The latter is due to the application of high amounts of pig manure with high copper content the result of copperenriched readymade feed. Other sources of copper are sewage sludge, compost and pesticides containing copper. About 2% of the forests and grasslands monitored exceeded the guidance value for copper (Umweltbundesamt 2007).


Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) contamination was found in a limited number of sites. Pollution mainly occurs in urban areas and around industries, but can also derive from longrange transboundary air pollution. Emissions of POPs have been substantially reduced in the past years, but a systematic survey of results is not available. For this and other reasons, such as the low mobility of these pollutants and newly marketed chemical products, the importance of the problem may increase in the future (Umweltbundesamt, 2004 and 2007b).


Contamination from local sources. In Austria, a distinction is made between contamination  generated before 1989 and new contamination. This paper discusses historic contamination only.

(According to the legal definition historically contaminated sites are either former waste deposits or industrial sites, which on the basis of a risk assessment pose a significant threat to human health and the environment. In this context the surface, the subsoil, and in particular the underlying groundwater body are considered.)


As of January 2009, 248 areas appear in the Register of Contaminated Sites on the basis of investigations and risk assessments. These either need to be secured or require remediation measures 97 of these sites have already been secured or remediated. Securing or cleanup measures are already underway for 92 of the remaining 151 contaminated sites (Umweltbundesamt 2009c).


There are an estimated total of 72,000 potentially polluted sites of which 74% have already been identified. The number of contaminated sites is estimated to amount to 2,050 sites, of which 17% have been identified and about 9% remediated (BMFLUW 2007, Umweltbundesamt 2009c).


Salinisation is of minor importance in Austria. According to a survey carried out in the period 19581970 (agricultural soil mapping), the areas affected amounted to just 2,500 ha. In addition, sodacontaining soils are estimated to cover 2,000 ha. In these areas, strict rules for agricultural production apply.


To date, salinisation only occurs on a very small scale in eastern areas and is generally characterised by a negative water balance, saltsensitive soils, a low groundwater table and salty groundwater. Future changes in climate and inappropriate land management practices could induce more salinisation of soils.


Erosion by water could potentially affect about 13% of agricultural land or more than 5% of Austria's territory. The spatial distribution of potential erosion risk is very heterogeneous. The most affected areas include the productive southeast and northeast plains and hills, the Alpine foreland and the Carinthian basin (Strauss and Klaghofer, 2006).


Information on wind erosion is scarce, although it has been observed in the lowlands of eastern Austria since the 18th century. Areas at risk are typically those with sandy soils and, in the dry season, some areas covered with black soils (chernozems). In the past, some protective measures, such as reforestation of lowlands, were carried out today, new windbreaks are planted annually, increasing the areas protected by several thousand hectares a year. Early recognition of the problem and measures adopted have resulted in the stabilisation of erosion in these areas. (Strauss and Klaghofer, 2006).

Figure 3 shows a considerable increase in the application of erosion protection measures in agricultural areas since 2001. Soil erosion is not expected to increase due to the implementation of prevention and reduction measures, such as those under the national AgriEnvironmental Programme.

Decline in soil organic matter. According to the results of a recent monitoring programme, more than half of all grassland and forest sites have a high level of humus, 8%, in topsoil. On the other hand, most of the monitored arable land sites show a medium level of humus 24%, while a low or very low content, <2%, is found in 25%. In the areas with low humus content, the natural soil functions are at longterm risk (Umweltbundesamt, 2004).

Monitoring programme: Monitoring consisted in particular in measuring the content of humus dead organic matter in the soil excluding of soil fauna and roots in topsoil (020 cm depth).


There are significant regional differences in the humus content of topsoil. A significant eastwest gradient was observed, with lower humus content in arable land in eastern Austria. In regions with forestry and grassland, the topsoil shows higher humus content. In the Alpine region, the high content of humus may be related to the management of mountain pastures and lower mineralization rates, controlled by temperature.


Hydrogeological risks. Erosion and erosion control have been major issues for a long time, due to Austrias specific geomorphological configuration. The focus of past and current control activities has been on torrents and avalanches, as major threats to human life in alpine environment (Strauss and Klaghofer, 2006).


About 63% of the territory is classified as either part of a torrent watershed, avalanche watershed or as a general risk area (BMLFUW, 2007a). This classification is subject to strong regional variation. In Tyrol, 88% of the territory is classified as a risk area, whereas in Burgenland only 16%.


Floods happen occasionally following extraordinary weather conditions in the flood plains of eastern Austria. The flood events in August 2002 affected large parts of the national territory. Upper and Lower Austria suffered particularly heavy and unforeseeable damage. More details on this event can be found in the 7th National State of the Environment report (Umweltbundesamt, 2004). 

Links & References

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 21 Dec 2010 original


Figure 4 Changes of green and arable land, 2001-2008, in the nine Austrian provinces. \nNational sustainability indicator LA 1a. \nSource: BMLFUW 2009a

Data source
Figure 4 Changes of green and arable land, 2001-2008, in the nine Austrian provinces. \nNational sustainability indicator LA 1a. \nSource: BMLFUW 2009a
Fullscreen image Original link

Compaction. The use of heavy machinery in combination with wet soil conditions often results in topsoil compaction and can also affect underlying soil layers. Within the CAP Cross Compliance Regulations, treatment of watersaturated soils is now prohibited. Soil compaction mainly occurs in areas with intensive agriculture and, locally, in other areas due to forest management activities.


Erosion and decline of organic matter. The natural process of soil erosion can be accelerated by inappropriate infrastructure construction roads, railways, etc. or unsuitable agricultural practices leaving steep slopes bare, inadequate crop rotation, excessive withdrawal of organic matter, etc. Agricultural measures against water and wind erosion under the national AgriEnvironmental Programme can help to reduce or avoid erosion. As soil erosion mainly affects the topsoil, the organic matter content may be reduced equally. According to Cross Compliance Regulations, farmers are obliged to conserve organic matter in their soils standards for crop rotation and to protect them minimum soil cover.


Soil sealing. Increased soil sealing is due to changes in the standard of living and lifestyles, as well as to associated settlement and transport activities rather than due to population growth.


Diffuse contamination. Contamination from heavy metals is mainly due to longrange transboundary air pollution. Contamination by heavy metals and POPs can also be found in restricted areas originating from industry, traffic and agriculture.


Local contamination. Industrial production and commercial services, 44% of all investigated sites; municipal waste treatment and disposal, 27%; industrial waste treatment and disposal, 15%; and storage, 14%, are reported as the most important local sources. National reports indicate that heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cyanides and mineral oil are the most common soil contaminants at the investigated sites.


Soil organic matter. A key pressure for soil organic matter is urbanisation and hence the conversion of arable land or pasture into land for building. Figure 4 shows the changes of arable land in the nine Austrian provinces between 2001 and 2008 and can be interpreted as an indirect indicator of land take. It also reveals that the province of Vorarlberg has no loss of arable land in the observed period explained by its efficient land management policy.

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The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 13 Apr 2011 Feed synced: 21 Dec 2010 original

Although soil resources are on average in good condition, soil functions are still (threatened by the deposition of airborne pollutants, a legacy of contamination in industrial and urban areas and the continuing increase of builtup areas.


Diffuse soil contamination. There are some uncertainties in future trends of soil contamination due to the lack of data on the presence of organic pollutants in soil and the appearance on the market of new chemical products whose effects are not fully understood (Umweltbundesamt, 2004 and 2007b). The input of pollutants, particularly lead, cadmium and POPs, into soil is expected to decrease, since emissions are decreasing. On the other hand, acidifying substances, in particular nitrogen oxides (NOx) from traffic sources, are expected to increase. Moreover, soil contamination and its adverse effects are still expected to occur in the longterm since many pollutants, including heavy metals and POPs, show low mobility, high persistence and accumulation. In addition, the increase of the emissions of acidifying substances may result in an increase of pressures on forests. Major indirect impacts will be the loss of biodiversity and quality of groundwater resources.


Local soil contamination. The cleanup of historical contamination will continue to pose a challenge. Although considerable efforts have already been made , further acceleration of the contaminated sites management programme is under way. (46 mio. m groundwater and 15,5 mio. t of contaminated soil have been cleaned. 145 ha of former contaminated land have been redeveloped.)  In this regard, a policy support project, Contaminated Sites Management 2010 (German: Altlastenmanagement 2010), was initiated, the overall objective of which is to amend the current system according to more sustainable principles. This project includes a variety of initiatives including a new national vision for contaminated sites management (BMFLUW 2008). This vision is based on six key principles, one of them depicts the overall time frame and the goals to be achieved in the future, for example, the identification of all historically contaminated sites shall be completed by 2025 and completion of remediation measures at heavily contaminated sites by 2050.


Sealing. Spatial planning is legislated at the level of the Federal Provinces. Solutions for the future include polycentric structures, enhanced development of city centres, increasing the quality of life in small cities, location of new settlements only along top public transport lines, redeveloping brownfield sites, and protection of landscapes and recreational areas.


The Ministry of the Environment is currently supporting an initiative Space management in Austria Progress and Prospects (German title "Grund genug") aimed at concentrating the efforts of the Federal Provinces, with specific focus on collecting best practice examples and on defining future measures.  

Erosion, compaction and decline in organic matter.


As mentioned above, soil degradation in agricultural areas, especially erosion, compaction and a decline in organic matter are not expected to increase in the future due to the implementation of prevention and reduction measures. For the same reasons, the organic carbon stock in soils is expected to remain stable.


Climate change in combination with land development in tourist areas may induce higher hydrogeological risks.

Links & References


The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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Phone: +45 3336 7100