Eolian Processes

Qaidam Depression in China

The Qaidam Depression in China is the highest desert in the world. This Landsat image illustrates a salt lake and evaporite basins in the depression.
Eolian processes pertain to the activity of the winds. Winds may erode, transport, and deposit materials, and are effective agents in regions with sparse vegetation and a large supply of unconsolidated sediments. Although water is much more powerful than wind, eolian processes are important in arid environments.

Eolian Erosion

Wind erodes the Earth's surface by deflation, the removal of loose, fine-grained particles by the turbulent eddy action of the wind, and by abrasion, the wearing down of surfaces by the grinding action and sand blasting of windborne particles.

Rocks and sand of the Turpan Depression in China
The sand and rock of China's Turpan Depression resemble closely those in the view of the Martian surface shown in "Types of Deserts."

Desert varnish
The arrow points to shiny black desert varnish on these rocks of Egypt's southwest desert (photograph by Carol Breed).
Most eolian deflation zones are composed of desert pavement, a sheetlike surface of rock fragments that remains after wind and water have removed the fine particles. Almost half of the Earth's desert surfaces are stony deflation zones. The rock mantle in desert pavements protects the underlying material from deflation.

A dark, shiny stain, called desert varnish or rock varnish, is often found on surfaces of some desert rocks that have been exposed at the surface for a long period of time. Manganese, iron oxides, hydroxides, and clay minerals form most varnishes and provide the shine.

Deflation basins, called blowouts, are hollows formed by the removal of particles by wind. Blowouts are generally small, but may be up to several kilometers in diameter.

Wind-driven grains abrade landforms. Grinding by particles carried in the wind creates grooves or small depressions. Ventifacts are rocks which have been cut, and sometimes polished, by the abrasive action of wind.

Sculpted landforms, called yardangs, are up to tens of meters high and kilometers long and are forms that have been streamlined by desert winds. The famous sphinx at Giza in Egypt may be a modified yardang.

Landsat view of Iran's Lut desert High-altitude photograph of Iran's Lut desert
Low-altitude photograph of Iran's Lut desert
Yardangs of the Lut desert of Iran. View from Landsat (A), from high-altitude photograph (B), and from low-altitude photograph (C). These yardangs are among the largest on Earth, with almost 100 meters of relief (low-altitude photograph by J.T. Daniels, aerial photograph by U.S. Air Force).

Eolian transportation

Particles are transported by winds through suspension, saltation, and creep.

Small particles may be held in the atmosphere in suspension. Upward currents of air support the weight of suspended particles and hold them indefinitely in the surrounding air. Typical winds near the Earth's surface suspend particles less than 0.2 millimeters in diameter and scatter them aloft as dust or haze.
Diagram illustrating how saltation works
Saltation moves small particles in the direction of the wind in a series of short hops or skips.

Saltation is downwind movement of particles in a series of jumps or skips. Saltation normally lifts sand-size particles no more than one centimeter above the ground, and proceeds at one-half to one-third the speed of the wind. A saltating grain may hit other grains that jump up to continue the saltation. The grain may also hit larger grains that are too heavy to hop, but that slowly creep forward as they are pushed by saltating grains. Surface creep accounts for as much as 25 percent of grain movement in a desert.

Eolian turbidity currents are better known as dust storms. Air over deserts is cooled significantly when rain passes through it. This cooler and denser air sinks toward the desert surface. When it reaches the ground, the air is deflected forward and sweeps up surface debris in its turbulence as a dust storm.

Crops, people, villages, and possibly even climates are affected by dust storms. Some dust storms are intercontinental, a few may circle the globe, and occasionally they may engulf entire planets. When the Mariner 9 spacecraft arrived at Mars in 1971, the entire planet was enshrouded in global dust.

Dust storm along the Mohave River in California
Dust storm along the Mohave River near Daggett, California, October 24, 1919 (photograph by D. G. Thompson).

Most of the dust carried by dust storms is in the form of silt-size particles. Deposits of this windblown silt are known as loess. The thickest known deposit of loess, 335 meters, is on the Loess Plateau in China. In Europe and in the Americas, accumulations of loess are generally from 20 to 30 meters thick.

Small whirlwinds, called dust devils, are common in arid lands and are thought to be related to very intense local heating of the air that results in instabilities of the air mass. Dust devils may be as much as one kilometer high.

Eolian deposition

Wind-deposited materials hold clues to past as well as to present wind directions and intensities. These features help us understand the present climate and the forces that molded it. Wind-deposited sand bodies occur as sand sheets, ripples, and dunes.

Sand sheets are flat, gently undulating sandy plots of sand surfaced by grains that may be too large for saltation. They form approximately 40 percent of eolian depositional surfaces. The Selima Sand Sheet, which occupies 60,000 square kilometers in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, is one of the Earth's largest sand sheets. The Selima is absolutely flat in some places; in others, active dunes move over its surface.

Wind blowing on a sand surface ripples the surface into crests and troughs whose long axes are perpendicular to the wind direction. The average length of jumps during saltation corresponds to the wavelength, or distance between adjacent crests, of the ripples. In ripples, the coarsest materials collect at the crests. This distinguishes small ripples from dunes, where the coarsest materials are generally in the troughs.

Diagram illustrating how dunes move through saltation
Wind-blown sand moves up the gentle upwind side of the dune by saltation or creep. Sand accumulates at the brink, the top of the slipface. When the buildup of sand at the brink exceeds the angle of repose, a small avalanche of grains slides down the slipface. Grain by grain, the dune moves downwind.
Accumulations of sediment blown by the wind into a mound or ridge, dunes have gentle upwind slopes on the wind-facing side. The downwind portion of the dune, the lee slope, is commonly a steep avalanche slope referred to as a slipface. Dunes may have more than one slipface. The minimum height of a slipface is about 30 centimeters.

Sand grains move up the dune's gentle upwind slope by saltation and creep. When particles at the brink of the dune exceed the angle of repose, they spill over in a tiny landslide or avalanche that reforms the slipface. As the avalanching continues, the dune moves in the direction of the wind.

Some of the most significant experimental measurements on eolian sand movement were performed by Ralph Bagnold, a British engineer who worked in Egypt prior to World War II. Bagnold investigated the physics of particles moving through the atmosphere and deposited by wind. He recognized two basic dune types, the crescentic dune, which he called "barchan," and the linear dune, which he called longitudinal or "sief" (Arabic for "sword").

Sand dunes in Death Valley, California
Sand dunes in Death Valley, California (photograph by Richard Frear).

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