US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, Vol. 38, No. 1, 2006, pp. 120–130.


Surface horizons of many alpine soils on Quaternary deposits in high-mountain settings are enriched in silt. The origin of these particles has been debated, particularly in the Rocky Mountain region of North America. The most common explanations are frost shattering of coarser particles and eolian additions from distant sources. We studied soil A horizons on alpine moraines of late-glacial (Satanta Peak) age in the Colorado Front Range. Surface horizons of soils on these moraines are enriched in silt and have a particle size distribution that resembles loess and dust deposits found elsewhere. The compositions of sand and silt fractions of the soils were compared to possible local source rocks, using immobile trace elements Ti, Nb, Zr, Ce, and Y. The sand fractions of soils have a wide range of trace element ratios, similar to the range of values in the local biotite gneiss bedrock. In contrast, silt fractions have narrower ranges of trace element ratios that do not overlap the range of these ratios in biotite gneiss. The particle size and geochemical results support an interpretation that silts in these soils are derived from airborne dust. Eolian silts were most likely derived from distant sources, such as the semiarid North Park and Middle Park basins to the west. We hypothesize that much of the eolian influx to soils of the Front Range occurred during an early to mid-Holocene warm period, when sediment availability in semiarid source basins was at a maximum.