Contrasting soils and landscapes of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, eastern United States

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The Piedmont and Coastal Plain physiographic provinces comprise 80 percent of the Atlantic Coastal states from New Jersey to Georgia. The provinces are climatically similar. The soil moisture regime is udic. The soil temperature regime is typically thermic from Virginia through Georgia, although it is mesic at altitudes above 400 m in Georgia and above 320 m in Virginia. The soil temperature regime is mesic for the Piedmont and Coastal Plain from Maryland through New Jersey. The tightly folded, structurally complex crystalline rocks of the Piedmont and the gently dipping “layer-cake” clastic sedimentary rocks and sediments of the Coastal Plain respond differently to weathering, pedogenesis, and erosion. The different responses result in two physiographically contrasting terrains; each has distinctive near-surface hydrology, regolith, drainage morphology, and morphometry.

The Piedmont is predominantly an erosional terrain. Interfluves are as narrow as 0.5 to 2 km, and are convex upward. Valleys are as narrow as 0.1 to 0.5 km and generally V-shaped in cross section. Alluvial terraces are rare and discontinuous. Soils in the Piedmont are typically less than 1 m thick, have less sand and more clay than Coastal Plain soils, and generally have not developed sandy epipedons. Infiltration rates for Piedmont soils are low at 6–15 cm/h. The soil/saprolite, soil/rock, and saprolite/rock boundaries are distinct (can be placed within 10 cm) and are characterized by ponding and/or lateral movement of water. Water movement through soil into saprolite, and from saprolite into rock, is along joints, foliation, bedding planes and faults. Soils and isotopic data indicate residence times consistent with a Pleistocene age for most Piedmont soils.

The Coastal Plain is both an erosional and a constructional terrain. Interfluves commonly are broader than 2 km and are flat. Valleys are commonly as wide as 1 km to greater than 10 km, and contain numerous alluvial and estuarine terrace sequences that can be correlated along valleys for tens of kilometers. Coastal Plain soils are typically as thick as 2 to 8 m, have high sand content throughout, and have sandy epipedons. These epipedons consist of both A and E horizons and are 1 to 4 m thick. In Coastal Plain soils, the boundaries are transitional between the solum and the underlying parent material and between weathered and unweathered parent material. Infiltration rates for Coastal Plain soils are typically higher at 13–28 cm/h, than are those for Piedmont soils. Indeed, for unconsolidated quartz sand, rates may exceed 50 cm/h. Water moves directly from the soil into the parent material through intergranularpores with only minor channelization along macropores, joints, and fractures. The comparatively high infiltration capacity results in relatively low surface runoff, and correspondingly less erosion than on the Piedmont uplands.

Due to differences in Piedmont and Coastal Plain erosion rates, topographic inversion is common along the Fall Zone; surfaces on Cenozoic sedimentary deposits of the Coastal Plain are higher than erosional surfaces on regolith weathered from late Precambrian to early Paleozoic crystalline rocks of the Piedmont. Isotopic, paleontologic, and soil data indicate that Coastal Plain surficial deposits are post-middle Miocene to Holocene in age, but most are from 5 to 2 Ma. Thus, the relatively uneroded surfaces comprise a Pliocene landscape. In the eastern third of the Coastal Plain, deposits that are less than 3.5 Ma include alluvial terraces, marine terraces and barrier/back-barrier complexes as morphostratigraphic units that cover thousands of square kilometers. Isotopic and soil data indicate that eastern Piedmont soils range from late Pliocene to Pleistocene in age, but are predominantly less than 2 Ma old. Thus, the eroded uplands of the Piedmont “peneplain” comprise a Pleistocene landscape.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Contrasting soils and landscapes of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, eastern United States
Series title Geomorphology
DOI 10.1016/0169-555X(90)90015-I
Volume 3
Issue 3-4
Year Published 1990
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Description 31 p.
First page 417
Last page 447
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