Loess studies in central United States: Evolution of concepts

Engineering Geology


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Few words in the realm of earth science have caused more debate than "loess". It is a common term that was first used as a name of a silt deposit before it was defined in a scientific sense. Because this "loose" deposit is easily distinguished from other more coherent deposits, it was recognized as a matter of practical concern and later became the object of much scientific scrutiny. Loess was first recognized along the Rhine Valley in Germany in the 1830s and was first noted in the United States in 1846 along the lower Mississippi River where it later became the center of attention. The use of the name eventually spread around the world, but its use has not been consistently applied. Over the years some interpretations and stratigraphic correlations have been validated, but others have been hotly contested on conceptual grounds and semantic issues. The concept of loess evolved into a complex issue as loess and loess-like deposits were discovered in different parts of the US. The evolution of concepts in the central US developed in four indefinite stages: the eras of (1) discovery and development of hypotheses, (2) conditional acceptance of the eolian origin of loess, (3) "bandwagon" popularity of loess research, and (4) analytical inquiry on the nature of loess. Toward the end of the first era around 1900, the popular opinion on the meaning of the term loess shifted from a lithological sense of loose silt to a lithogenetic sense of eolian silt. However, the dual use of the term fostered a lingering skepticism during the second era that ended in 1944 with an explosion of interest that lasted for more than a decade. In 1944, R.J. Russell proposed and H.N. Fisk defended a new non-eolian, property-based, concept of loess. The eolian advocates reacted with surprise and enthusiasm. Each side used constrained arguments to show their view of the problem, but did not examine the fundamental problem, which was not in the proofs of their hypothesis, but in the definition of the term. Between 1944 and about 1950, the debates about loess reached a maximum level of complexity. The main semantic problem was submersed in peripheral arguments about physical properties and genetic interpretations. The scholarly treatment of the subject by Fisk and Russell stimulated quality responses from a diversity of earth scientists interested in academic and applied studies, particularly geo-history, pedology, soil mechanics and stratigraphy. The long-lasting popularity of loess studies during the bandwagon era lasted to about 1970. By that time, the analytical and technical interests had attracted the mainstream into the fourth era with a focus beyond the old arguments. Although Fisk and Russell found themselves defending an unpopular theory, they stimulated a scientific interest in the late Quaternary history of the Mississippi Valley that may never be exceeded.
Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Loess studies in central United States: Evolution of concepts
Series title Engineering Geology
Volume 45
Issue 1-4
Year Published 1996
Language English
Larger Work Type Article
Larger Work Subtype Journal Article
Larger Work Title Engineering Geology
First page 287
Last page 304
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