US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in GSA Bulletin; January/February 2008; v. 120; no. 1/2; p. 106–126.


There is an increasing awareness that dust plays important roles in climate change, biogeochemical cycles, nutrient supply to ecosystems, and soil formation. In Channel Islands National Park, California, soils are clay-rich Vertisols or Alfi sols and Mollisols with vertic properties. The soils are overlain by silt-rich mantles that contrast sharply with the underlying clay-rich horizons. Silt mantles contain minerals that are rare or absent in the volcanic rocks that dominate these islands. Immobile trace elements (Sc-Th-La and Ta-Nd-Cr) and rare-earth elements show that the basalt and andesite on the islands have a composition intermediate between upper-continental crust and oceanic crust. In contrast, the silt fractions and, to a lesser extent, clay fractions of the silt mantle have compositions closer to average upper-continental crust and very similar to Mojave Desert dust. Island shelves, exposed during the last glacial period, could have provided a source of eolian sediment for the silt mantles, but this is not supported by mineralogical data. We hypothesize that a more likely source for the silt-rich mantles is airborne dust from mainland California and Baja California, either from the Mojave Desert or from the continental shelf during glacial low stands of sea. Although average winds are from the northwest in coastal California, easterly winds occur numerous times of the year when “Santa Ana” conditions prevail, caused by a high-pressure cell centered over the Great Basin. The eolian silt mantles constitute an important medium of plant growth and provide evidence that abundant eolian silt and clay may be delivered to the eastern Pacific Ocean from inland desert sources.