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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY
ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

Loess

Loess

Encyclopedic entry. In some parts of the world, windblown dust and silt blanket the land. This layer of fine, mineral-rich material is called loess.

Grades

4 - 12+

Subjects

Earth Science, Geography, Physical Geography

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Morgan Stanley

In some parts of the world, windblown dust and silt blanket the land. This layer of fine, mineral-rich material is called loess.

Loess is mostly created by wind, but can also be formed by glaciers. When glaciers grind rocks to a fine powder, loess can form. Streams carry the powder to the end of the glacier. This sediment becomes loess.

Loess ranges in thickness from a few centimeters to more than 91 meters (300 feet). Unlike other soils, loess is pale and loosely packed. It crumbles easily; in fact, the word “loess” comes from the German word for “loose.” Loess is soft enough to carve, but strong enough to stand as sturdy walls. In parts of China, residents build cave-like dwellings in thick loess cliffs.

Extensive loess deposits are found in northern China, the Great Plains of North America, central Europe, and parts of Russia and Kazakhstan. The thickest loess deposits are near the Missouri River in the U.S. state of Iowa and along the Yellow River in China.

Loess accumulates, or builds up, at the edges of deserts. For example, as wind blows across the Gobi, a desert in Asia, it picks up and carries fine particles. These particles include sand crystals made of quartz or mica. It may also contain organic material, such as the dusty remains of skeletons from desert animals.

On the far side of the desert, moisture in the air causes the particles and dust to settle on the ground. There, grass and the roots of other plants trap the dust and hold it to the ground. More dust slowly accumulates, and loess is formed.

Loess often develops into extremely fertile agricultural soil. It is full of minerals and drains water very well. It is easily tilled, or broken up, for planting seeds. Loess usually erodes very slowly—Chinese farmers have been working the loess around the Yellow River for more than a thousand years.

Fast Fact

Yellow River
The Yellow River gets its name from the yellow loess suspended in the water.

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Writers
Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Santani Teng
Hilary Hall
Tara Ramroop
Erin Sprout
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Hilary Costa
Illustrators
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Editors
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
Producer
National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

July 15, 2022

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