Dust transport and the question of desert loess formation


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Although contemporary dust storms are frequent in arid and semi‐arid areas, desert loess deposits are poorly developed. Much of the World's loess occurs in mid‐latitude areas which experienced glaciation during the Pleistocene. Ocean core evidence indicates that dust transport from sub‐tropical deserts increased during cold stages of the Pleistocene, but loess formed only on certain desert margins, for reasons which have not been fully explained. This paper re‐examines the mechanisms of dust transport and deposition, and the circumstances leading to the accumulation of thick loess. Typical loess is composed mainly of medium silt grains which are transported in short‐term suspension a few metres above the ground. Significant thicknesses of loess form only when dust is trapped within a limited area, often relatively close to the source. Dust particles finer than 20 μm are transported mainly in long‐term suspension over a greater height range and may be widely dispersed. The availability of silt and the frequency, magnitude and direction of dust‐transporting winds are important factors governing the potential for loess formation, but the existence of a suitable dust trap is particularly important. Traps may be formed by topographic obstacles, areas of moist ground, or vegetated surfaces. Vegetation adjacent to glacial outwash plains and braided meltwater streams trapped dust in mid‐latitudes during the Pleistocene. Dust blown during glacial periods from certain deserts, notably in Sinai, Soviet Central Asia and China, accumulated as loess in neighbouring semi‐arid regions. On the margins of other deserts loess formation was inhibited partly by the absence of vegetation traps. During most of the Holocene net dust deposition rates in all desert‐marginal areas have been too low for significant loess accumulation. This is mainly due to a reduction in silt availability and a tendency towards landscape stability. Reported dust storm frequencies during the past 50 years over‐estimate the longer‐term Holocene dust flux due to the effects of human activities. Much modern dust owes its origin to erosion of cultivated soils in semi‐arid areas and is finer than typical loess.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-153
Number of pages15
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 1987

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology
  • Stratigraphy


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