Environmental changes in the central Po Plain (northern Italy) due to fluvial modifications and anthropogenic activities
The fluvial environment of the central Po Plain, the largest plain in Italy, is discussed in this paper. Bounded by the mountain chains of the Alps and the Apennines, this plain is a link between the Mediterranean environment and the cultural and continental influences of both western and eastern Europe. In the past decades, economic development has been responsible for many changes in the fluvial environment of the area. This paper discusses the changes in fluvial dynamics that started from Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene due to distinct climatic changes. The discussion is based on geomorphological, pedological, and archaeological evidences and radiocarbon dating. In the northern foothills, Late Pleistocene palaeochannels indicate several cases of underfit streams among the northern tributaries of the River Po. On the other hand, on the southern side of the Po Plain, no geomorphological evidence of similar discharge reduction has been found. Here, stratigraphic sections, together with archaeological remains buried under the fluvial deposits, show a reduction in the size of fluvial sediments after the 10th millennium BC. During the Holocene, fluvial sedimentation became finer, and was characterised by minor fluctuations in the rate of deposition, probably related to short and less intense climatic fluctuations. Given the high rate of population growth and the development of human activities since the Neolithic Age, human influence on fluvial dynamics, especially since the Roman Age, prevailed over other factors (i.e., climate, tectonics, vegetation, etc.). During the Holocene, the most important changes in the Po Plain were not modifications in water discharge but in sediment. From the 1st to 3rd Century AD, land grants to war veterans caused almost complete deforestation, generalised soil erosion, and maximum progradation of the River Po delta. At present, land abandonment in the mountainous region has led to reafforestation. Artificial channel control in the mountain sector of the basins and in-channel gravel extraction (now illegal but very intense in the 1960s and 1970s) are causing erosion along the rivers and along large sectors of the Adriatic coast. These changes are comparable with those occurring in basins of other Mediterranean rivers.