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Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5010

Published 2008

Substrate Geochemistry and Soil Development in Boreal Forest and Tundra Ecosystems in the Yukon–Tanana Upland and Seward Peninsula, Alaska

By L.P. Gough, J.G. Crock, B. Wang, W.C. Day, D.D. Eberl, R.F. Sanzolone, and P.J. Lamothe


We report on soil development as a function of bedrock type and the presence of loess in two high latitude ecosystems (boreal forest and tundra) and from two regions in Alaska—the Yukon-Tanana Upland (YTU, east-central Alaska) and the Seward Peninsula (SP, far-west coastal Alaska). This approach to the study of "cold soils" is fundamental to the quantification of regional geochemical landscape patterns. Of the five state factors in this study, bedrock and biota (ecosystem; vegetation zone) vary whereas climate (within each area) and topography are controlled. The influence of time is assumed to be controlled, as these soils are thousands of years old (late Quaternary to Holocene).

The primary minerals in soils from YTU, developed over loess and crystalline bedrock (metamorphic and intrusive), are quartz, plagioclase, and 2:1 clays; whereas in the SP, where loess and metasedimentary bedrock (schist and quartzite) predominate, they are quartz and muscovite. The A horizon of both regions is rich in peat. Examination of the ratio of mobile (K2O, CaO, and Fe2O3) to immobile (TiO2) major oxides, within each region, shows that very little difference exists in the chemical weathering of soils developed between the two ecosystems examined. Differences were observed between tundra soils developed in the two regions. These differences are most probably due to the dissimilarity in the geochemical importance of both loess and bedrock. A minimal loss of cadmium with soil depth is seen for soils developed over YTU crystalline bedrock in the boreal forest environments. This trend is related to the mobility of cadmium in these soils as well as to its biogenic cycling. Major differences were observed in the proportion of cadmium and zinc among the A, B, and C horizon material sequestered in various soil fractions as measured by sequential soil extractions.

These trends followed such variables as the decrease with depth in organic matter, the change in clay minerals, and the change in the proportion of oxides/hydroxides. An analysis of the bulk soil mineralogy and the relation between CaO and MgO and Al2O3 and Fe2O3 indicates that the silty textured soils of the YTU are predominantly eolian (that is, of late Tertiary or Quaternary age) but not broad-regional in origin. Their composition instead is probably the result of locally derived dusts as well as input from long-term, in-place bedrock weathering.

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Suggested Citation

Gough, L.P., Crock, J.G., Wang, B., Day, W.C., Eberl, D.D., Sanzolone, R.F., and Lamothe, P.J., 2008, Substrate geochemistry and soil development in boreal forest and tundra ecosystems in the Yukon–Tanana Upland and Seward Peninsula, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008–5010, 18 p.


For scientific questions or comments, please send inquiries to Larry P. Gough (E-mail address:

This report is available in PDF format: Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5010 (PDF–2.38MB)

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