US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in the JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH, VOL. 112, 2007.


We studied soils on high-purity limestones of Quaternary age on the western Atlantic Ocean islands of Barbados, the Florida Keys, and the Bahamas. Potential soil parent materials in this region, external to the carbonate substrate, include volcanic ash from the island of St. Vincent (near Barbados), volcanic ash from the islands of Dominica and St. Lucia (somewhat farther from Barbados), the fine-grained component of distal loess from the lower Mississippi River Valley, and wind-transported dust from Africa. These four parent materials can be differentiated using trace elements (Sc, Cr, Th, and Zr) and rare earth elements that have minimal mobility in the soil-forming environment. Barbados soils have compositions that indicate a complex derivation. Volcanic ash from the island of St. Vincent appears to have been the most important influence, but African dust is a significant contributor, and even Mississippi River valley loess may be a very minor contributor to Barbados soils. Soils on the Florida Keys and islands in the Bahamas appear to have developed mostly from African dust, but Mississippi River valley loess may be a significant contributor. Our results indicate that inputs of African dust are more important to the genesis of soils on islands in the western Atlantic Ocean than previously supposed. We hypothesize that African dust may also be a major contributor to soils on other islands of the Caribbean and to soils in northern South America, central America, Mexico, and the southeastern United States. Dust inputs to subtropical and tropical soils in this region increase both nutrient-holding capacity and nutrient status and thus may be critical in sustaining vegetation.