US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in Quaternary Science Reviews 22 (2003) 1947–1986.


Loess is one of the most widespread subaerialdeposits in Alaska and adjacent Yukon Territory and may have a history that goes back 3 Ma. Based on mineralogy and major and trace element chemistry, central Alaskan loess has a composition that is distinctive from other loess bodies of the world, although it is quartz-dominated. Central Alaskan loess was probably derived from a variety of rock types, including granites, metabasalts and schists. Detailed stratigraphic data and pedologic criteria indicate that, contrary to early studies, many palaeosols are present in central Alaskan loess sections. The buried soils indicate that loess sedimentation was episodic, or at least rates of deposition decreased to the point where pedogenesis could keep ahead of aeolian input. As in China, loess deposition and pedogenesis are likely competing processes and neither stops completely during either phase of the loess/soil formation cycle. Loess deposition in central Alaska took place before, and probably during the last interglacial period, during stadials of the mid-Wisconsin period, during the last glacial period and during the Holocene. An unexpected result of our geochronological studies is that only moderate loess deposition took place during the last glacial period. Our studies lead us to conclude that vegetation plays a key role in loess accumulation in Alaska. Factors favouring loess production are enhanced during glacial periods but factors that favour loess accumulation are diminished during glacial periods. The most important of these is vegetation; boreal forest serves as an effective loess trap, but sparsely distributed herb tundra does not. Thus, thick accumulations of loess should not be expected where tundra vegetation was dominant and this is borne out by modern studies near the treeline in central Alaska. Much of the stratigraphic diversity of North American loess, including that found in the Central Lowlands, the Great Plains, and Alaska is explained by a new model that emphasizes the relative importance of loess production factors versus loess accumulation factors.