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Aeolian dust in Colorado Plateau soils: Nutrient inputs and recent change in source

January 1, 2001

Aeolian dust (windblown silt and clay) is an important component in arid-land ecosystems because it may contribute to soil formation and furnish essential nutrients. Few geologic surfaces, however, have been characterized with respect to dust-accumulation history and resultant nutrient enrichment. We have developed a combination of methods to identify the presence of aeolian dust in arid regions and to evaluate the roles of this dust in ecosystem processes. Unconsolidated sandy sediment on isolated surfaces in the Canyonlands region of the Colorado Plateau differs greatly in mineralogical and chemical composition from associated bedrock, mainly aeolian sandstone. Detrital magnetite in the surficial deposits produces moderately high values of magnetic susceptibility, but magnetite is absent in nearby bedrock. A component of the surficial deposits must be aeolian to account for the abundance of magnetite, which formed originally in far-distant igneous rocks. Particle-size analysis suggests that the aeolian dust component is typically as much as 20–30%. Dust inputs have enriched the sediments in many elements, including P, Mg, Na, K, and Mo, as well as Ca, at sites where bedrock lacks calcite cement. Soil-surface biologic crusts are effective dust traps that apparently record a change in dust sources over the past several decades. Some of the recently fallen dust may result from human disturbance of land surfaces that are far from the Canyonlands, such as the Mojave Desert. Some land-use practices in the study area have the potential to deplete soil fertility by means of wind-erosion removal of aeolian silt.

Many studies have addressed the presence of aeolian dust in soils and surficial deposits in deserts to provide important geologic and ecologic information bearing on landscape dynamics (1–16). From this body of work, we have improved understanding about: (i) current and past sources and flux of dust, hence changing conditions of dust emission; (ii) the genesis of desert soils; (iii) the influences of aeolian silt and clay on water-infiltration rates in soil; (iv) the evolution of desert surfaces (such as desert pavement) relevant to surface stability, as well as the distribution of surface and subsurface water; and (v) interrelations among aeolian dust, distribution of plants and soil crust, rain-water runoff, and productivity. Nevertheless, we lack fundamental knowledge about the accumulation history of aeolian dust on most landscapes and about how to discriminate between contributions from parent material and aeolian dust to the biotic system.

Although many different methods provide clear evidence for aeolian input into soils (4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 17, 18), ecosystem studies would benefit from rapid assessment of aeolian components in soils. Here we demonstrate that magnetic methods, which characterize the type and distribution of iron oxide minerals, can be applied to detect the presence of aeolian dust in young surficial sediments and soils over large arid-land areas. The magnetic results, combined with geochemical and textural analyses, form a basis for understanding the influence of fine-grained aeolian inputs on soil fertility of the central Colorado Plateau, Utah.

Publication Year 2001
Title Aeolian dust in Colorado Plateau soils: Nutrient inputs and recent change in source
DOI 10.1073/pnas.121094298
Authors Richard L. Reynolds, Jayne Belnap, Paul Lamothe, Fred Luiszer
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Index ID 1016204
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center; Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center