Origin of desert loess from some experimental observations


A longstanding problem of Quaternary geology has been the origin of the silty deposit known as loess. Of the many explanations for its formation and distribution1,2, the most commonly accepted is that the silt is produced by subglacial grinding processes1,3,4, followed by redistribution and deposition by the wind. The large expanses of loess in central Europe are therefore considered to be the consequence of Quaternary glaciation5. There is, however, a view6,7 that loessic silt may also originate as the product of processes in hot deserts. Some proponents of the desert loess hypothesis consider that silt-size material is the product of weathering processes7 which may include salt weathering8 or weathering down incipient cracks9. An alternative mechanism is aeolian attrition of sand grains, although, probably as a result of the experimental work of Kuenen10, Smalley and Krinsley11 consider that only fine silt (2–6 µm) is produced in large quantities by the abrasion of quartz grains. We have simulated aeolian attrition of angular quartz grains previously produced by weathering in deserts. The products of abrasion show that both coarse and fine silt sizes are produced. These findings suggest that desert aeolian processes can produce loess. We also suggest that much of this material from many deserts has been deposited in the sea but that the Chinese loess could have been produced in the Gobi desert. The finest particles produced by such attrition may be a source of silica for silcrete formation.

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Whalley, W., Marshall, J. & Smith, B. Origin of desert loess from some experimental observations. Nature 300, 433–435 (1982). https://doi.org/10.1038/300433a0

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