US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Geologic Studies in Alaska by the U.S. Geological Survey, 1998. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1615


U.S. government work


The presence of buried soils in Alaskan loess is controversial, and therefore criteria for identifying buried soils in these deposits need to be evaluated. In this paper, morphologic and chemical criteria for identifying buried soils are evaluated by studying modern soils developed mostly in Holocene loess under tundra, boreal forest, and transitional coastal-boreal forest vegetation in different parts of Alaska. Data from modern Alaskan soils that developed under vegetation similar to that of the present indicate that soil morphology, organic-matter concentrations, and P concentrations can be useful diagnostic tools for identifying buried soils. Soil morphologic criteria, particularly horizon colors and horizon sequences, are essential for identifying buried soils, but some minimally developed soils may resemble organic-rich alluvial, colluvial, or lacustrine deposits. Organic matter and total P contents and distributions can aid in such studies because in well-drained soils these constituents show rapid declines with depth. However, neither of these techniques may work if the upper genetic horizons of buried soils are eroded.

If buried soils are present in Alaskan loess, it would also be desirable to have techniques for determining the dominant vegetation under which the soils formed. Such techniques could then be used to reconstruct former vegetation types and paleoclimates in Alaska. A previous study suggested that tundra and boreal forest vegetation have distinctive carbon isotopic compositions, although both are dominated by C3 plants. If this is the case, then the carbon isotopic composition of organic matter in buried soils could be used to reconstruct former vegetation types. A larger suite of modern soils from Alaskan tundra and forest were analyzed to test this hypothesis. Results indicate that modern soil O horizons in these two biomes have the same range of δ13C values, and therefore carbon isotope compositions cannot be used to reconstruct former tundra or boreal forest.