1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Loess

LOESS (Ger. Löss), in geology, a variety of loam. Typical loess is a soft, porous rock, pale yellowish or buff in colour; one characteristic property is its capacity to retain vertical, or even over-hanging, walls in the banks of streams. These vertical walls have been well described by von Richthofen (Führer für Forschungsreisende, Berlin, 1886) in China, where they stand in some places 500 ft. high and contain innumerable cave dwellings; ancient roads too have worn their way vertically downwards deep into the deposit, forming trench-like ways. This character in the loess of the Mississippi region gave rise to the name “Bluff formation.” A coarse columnar structure is often exhibited on the vertical weathered faces of the rock. Another characteristic is the presence throughout the rock of small capillary tubules, which appear to have been occupied by rootlets; these are often lined with calcite. Typical loess is usually calcareous; some geologists regard this as an essential property, and when the rock has become decalcified, as it frequently is on the surface by weathering, they call it “loess-loam” (lösslehm). In the lower portions of a loess deposit the calcium carbonate tends to form concretions, which on account of their mimetic forms have received such names as lösskindchen, lösspuppen, poupées du loess, “loess dolls.” In deposits of this nature in South America these concretionary masses form distinct beds. Bedding is absent from typical loess. The mineral composition of loess varies somewhat in different regions, but the particles are always small; they consist of angular grains of quartz, fine particles of hydrated silicates of alumina, mica scales and undecomposed fragments of felspar, hornblende and other rock-forming silicates.

In Europe and America loess deposits are associated with the margins of the great ice sheets of the glacial period; thus in Europe they stretch irregularly through the centre eastwards from the north-west of France, and are not found north of the 57th parallel. In both regions loess deposits are found within and upon glacial deposits. For this reason the loess is very commonly assigned to the Pleistocene period; but some of the loess deposits of northern Europe have been in process of formation intermittently from the Miocene period onward, and in South America the great loess formations known as the Pampean or Patagonian belong to the Eocene, Oligocene and Pleistocene periods. Most geologists are agreed that the loess is an aeolian or wind-borne rock, formed most probably during periods of tundra or steppe conditions. The capillary tubules are supposed to have been caused by the roots of grass and herbage which kept growing upon the surface even while the deposit was slowly increasing. Others contend that loess is of the nature of alluvial loam; this may be true of certain deposits classed as loess, but it cannot be true of most of the typical loess formations, for they lie upon older rocks quite independently of altitude, from near sea level up to 5000 ft. in Europe and to 11,500 ft. in China; they are often developed on one side of a mountain range and not upon the other, and in a series of approximately parallel valleys the loess is frequently found lying upon one side and that the same in each case, facts pointing to the agency of prevalent winds.

The thickness of loess deposits is usually not more than 33 ft., but in China it reaches 1000 ft. or more; it also attains a great thickness in South America. Numerous proboscidian and other mammalian fossils have been found in the loess of Europe; the tapir, mastodon and giant sloths occur in South America, but the most common fossils are small land shells and such amphibious pond forms as Succinea. Certain loess deposits in Turkestan have been attributed to rain-wash, this is the so-called “lake-loess” (see-löss); according to Tukowski the difference between sub-aerial and lake loess is that the former is porous, dry and pervious, while the latter is laminated, plastic and impervious. Two types of loess have been recognized in Russia, the Hill- or Terrace-loess and the Low-level-loess, a product of the weathering of underlying rocks. In South Germany the following order has been recognized: (1) an upper unbedded, non-calcareous loess, (2) the gehanglöss, mixed with subsoil rocks, and (3) the sand or thal-löss, with some gravel. The effect of vegetation on the upper layers of loess is to produce soils of great fertility, such as the black earth (Tschernozom) of southern Russia, the dark Bordelöss of the Magdeburg district, and the black “cotton soil” (regur) of the Deccan.