Nature & Environment

Wind May Have Sculpted Massive Plateau with Dust

Catherine Griffin
First Posted: Sep 02, 2015 06:09 PM EDT

Wind can be a powerful, shaping force. Now, scientists have taken a closer look at how wind sculpted one of Earth's most spectacular features: China's Loess Plateau.

The Loess Plateau is about the size of the state of Arizona. It's actually the largest accumulation of dust on Earth. Deposits of wind-blown dust, known as "loess," generally create good agricultural soil and can be found in many parts of the world, including the U.S. Midwest.

In the past, wind blew dust from what is now the Mu Us Desert into the huge pile of consolidated dust known as the Loess Plateau. Just as a leaf blower clears an area by piling leaves up along the edge, the wind did the same thing with the dust that was once in the Mu Us Desert.

"If the blower keeps blowing the leaves, they move backward and the pile of leaves gest bigger," said Paul Kapp, one of the researchers, in a news release. "There's a boundary between the area of leaves and no leaves."

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In addition, just as a leaf blower moves a pile of leaves away from itself, wind scours the face of the plateau so forcefully that the plateau itself is slowly moving downwind.

"You have a dust-fall event and then you have a wind event that blows some of the dust away," said Kapp. "The plateau is not static. It's moving in a windward direction.  The significance of wind erosion shaping the landscape is generally unappreciated. It's more important than previously thought."

The findings reveal a bit more about how the plateau was formed. In addition, the findings are applicable to the formation of other areas of loess deposits on Earth, and possibly other planets such as Mars.

The findings are published in the journal Geology.

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