Aeolian processes

Aeolian processes, also spelled eolian, pertain to wind activity in the study of geology and weather and specifically to the wind's ability to shape the surface of the Earth (or other planets). Winds may erode, transport, and deposit materials and are effective agents in regions with sparse vegetation, a lack of soil moisture and a large supply of unconsolidated sediments. Although water is a much more powerful eroding force than wind, aeolian processes are important in arid environments such as deserts.[1]

Wind erosion of soil at the foot of Chimborazo, Ecuador.
Rock carved by drifting sand below Fortification Rock in Arizona (Photo by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, USGS, 1871)

The term is derived from the name of the Greek god Aeolus, the keeper of the winds.[2]

Wind erosion

A rock sculpted by wind erosion in the Altiplano region of Bolivia
Sand blowing off a crest in the Kelso Dunes of the Mojave Desert, California.
Wind-carved alcove in the Navajo Sandstone near Moab, Utah

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

Regions which experience intense and sustained erosion are called deflation zones. Most aeolian deflation zones are composed of desert pavement, a sheet-like surface of rock fragments that remains after wind and water have removed the fine particles. Almost half of 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 the 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. In parts of Antarctica wind-blown snowflakes that are technically sediments have also caused abrasion of exposed rocks.[3] 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 Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt may be a modified yardang.

List of major aeolian movements

Major global aeolian dust movements thought to influence and/or be influenced by weather and climate variation:

  • From Sahara (specifically Sahel and Bodélé Depression) averaged 182 million tons of dust each year between 2007 and 2011, carried past the western edge of the Sahara at longitude 15W. Variation: 86% (2007/11). Destination: 132 mln tons cross the Atlantic (avg), 27.7 mln tons fall in Amazon Basin (avg), 43 mln make it to the Caribbean. Texas and Florida also receive the dust. Events have become far more common in recent decades. Source: NASA's Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) data.[4] Harmattan winter dust storms in West Africa also occur blowing dust to the ocean.
  • Gobi Desert to Korea, Japan, Taiwan (at times) and even Western USA (blowing east). See also Asian dust.
  • Thar Desert pre-monsoon towards Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Indo-Gangetic Plain. See also 2018 Indian dust storms.
  • Shamal June–July winds blowing dust in primarily north to south in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, UAE, and parts of Pakistan.
  • Haboob dust storms in Sudan, Australia, Arizona associated with monsoon.
  • Khamsin dust from Libya, Egypt and Levant in Spring associated with extratropical cyclones.
  • Dust Bowl event in USA, carried sand eastward. 5500 tons were deposited in Chicago area.
  • Sirocco sandy winds from Africa/Sahara blowing north into South Europe.
  • Kalahari Desert blowing sand/dust east across southern Africa toward Indian Ocean.


Dust storm approaching Spearman, Texas April 14, 1935.
A massive sand storm cloud is about to envelop a military camp as it rolls over Al Asad, Iraq, just before nightfall on April 27, 2005.

Particles are transported by winds through suspension, saltation (skipping or bouncing) and creeping (rolling or sliding) along the ground.

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 Earth's surface suspend particles less than 0.2 millimeters in diameter and scatter them aloft as dust or haze.

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.

Aeolian 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 entered its orbit around Mars in 1971, a dust storm lasting one month covered the entire planet, thus delaying the task of photo-mapping the planet's surface.[5]

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. This very same Asian dust is blown for thousands of miles, forming deep beds in places as far away as Hawaii.[6] In Europe and in the Americas, accumulations of loess are generally from 20 to 30 meters thick. The soils developed on loess are generally highly productive for agriculture.

Researchers from Hacettepe University (Yücekutlu, N. et al., 2011) have reported that Saharan soil may have bio-available iron and also some essential macro and micro nutrient elements suitable for use as fertilizer for growing wheat. It has been shown that Saharan soil may have the potential of producing bioavailable iron when illuminated with visible light and also it has some essential macro and micro nutrient elements. Saharan soil sample was analyzed by XRD technique (x-ray diffraction technique) the dominant mineral was quartz, feldspar, calcite, gypsum and clay followed respectively.[7]

Aeolian transport from deserts plays an important role in ecosystems globally, e.g. by transport of minerals from the Sahara to the Amazon basin.[8] Saharan dust is also responsible for forming red clay soils in southern Europe.[9] Aeolian processes are affected by human activity, such as the use of 4x4 vehicles.[10]

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.


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 aeolian depositional surfaces. The Selima Sand Sheet in the eastern Sahara Desert, 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 a few 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 causing inverse grading. This distinguishes small ripples from dunes, where the coarsest materials are generally in the troughs. This is also a distinguishing feature between water laid ripples and aeolian ripples.

Accumulations of sediment blown by the wind into a mound or ridge, dunes have gentle upwind slopes on the windward 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.

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.

Some of the most significant experimental measurements on aeolian sand movement were performed by Ralph Alger Bagnold, a British army 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 "seif" (Arabic for "sword").

A 2011 study published in Catena examined the effect of vegetation on aeolian dust accumulation in the semiarid steppe of northern China. Using a series of trays with different vegetation coverage and a control model with none, the authors found that an increase in vegetation coverage improves the efficiency of dust accumulation and adds more nutrients to the environment, particularly organic carbon. Two critical point were revealed by their data: 1. the efficiency of trapping dust increases slowly above 15% coverage, and decreases rapidly below 15% coverage. 2. at around 55%-75% coverage, dust accumulation reaches a maximum capacity.[11]

In Europe, the European Commission requested the Joint Research Centre to develop the first pan-European wind erosion map. In a first step, a group of scientists have used the LUCAS topsoil dataset[12] to develop the wind erosion susceptibility of European soils.[13] Then, they have developed an index to land susceptibility [14] for making a qualitative assessment of wind erosion. Finally, they modified the RWEQ model to estimate the soil Loss Due to Wind Erosion in European Agricultural Soils.[15]

A three-year quantitative study on the effects of vegetation removal on wind erosion found that the removal of grasses in an aeolian environment increased the rate of soil deposition. In the same study, a relationship was shown between decreasing plant density with decreasing soil nutrients. Similarly, horizontal soil flux across the test site was shown to increase with increasing vegetation removal.[16]

A 1998 study published in Earth Surfaces Processes and Landforms investigated the relationship between vegetative cover on sand surfaces with the rate of sand transport. It was found that sand flux decreased exponentially with vegetation cover. This was done by measuring plots of land with varying degrees of vegetation against rates of sand transport. The authors contend that this relationship can be utilized to manipulate rates of sediment flux by introducing vegetation in an area or to quantify human impact by recognizing vegetation loss's effect on sandy landscapes.[17]

See also


  • Hughes, J. Donald (2016). What Is Environmental History? (2nd. ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press.
  1. "Eolian Processes". Deserts: Geology and Resources. United States Geological Survey. 1997. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  2. "Aeolian". LLC. 2020. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  3. National Geographic Almanac of Geography, 2005, page 166, ISBN 0-7922-3877-X.
  4. "Saharan Dust Feeds Amazon's Plants". 2015-02-24.
  5. Hsui, Albert T. (2001). "Geology of Mars: Aeolian". Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  6. Kurtz, Andrew C; Derry, Louis A; Chadwick, Oliver A (2001). "Accretion of Asian dust to Hawaiian soils: isotopic, elemental, and mineral mass balances" (PDF). Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. 65 (12): 1971–1983. Bibcode:2001GeCoA..65.1971K. doi:10.1016/S0016-7037(01)00575-0. ISSN 0016-7037. Retrieved January 14, 2016.
  7. Yücekutlu, Nihal; Terzioğlu, Serpil; Saydam, Cemal; Bildacı, Işık (2011)."Organic Farming By Using Saharan Soil: Could It Be An Alternative To Fertilizers?" (PDF). Hacettepe Journal of Biology and Chemistry. 39 (1): 29–38. Retrieved 23 March 2015.
  8. Koren, Ilan; Kaufman, Yoram J; Washington, Richard; Todd, Martin C; Rudich, Yinon; Martins, J Vanderlei; Rosenfeld, Daniel (2006). "The Bodélé depression: a single spot in the Sahara that provides most of the mineral dust to the Amazon forest". Environmental Research Letters. 1 (1): 014005. Bibcode:2006ERL.....1a4005K. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/1/1/014005. ISSN 1748-9326. Retrieved January 14, 2016.
  9. Muhs, Daniel R.; Budahn, James; Avila, Anna; Skipp, Gary; Freeman, Joshua; Patterson, DeAnna (September 2010). "The role of African dust in the formation of Quaternary soils on Mallorca, Spain and implications for the genesis of Red Mediterranean soils". Quaternary Science Reviews. 29 (19–20): 2518–2543. Bibcode:2010QSRv...29.2518M. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.04.013.
  10. Retta, A.; Wagner, L.E.; Tatarko, J. (2014). "Military Vehicle Trafficking Impacts on Vegetation and Soil Bulk Density at Fort Benning, Georgia" (PDF). Transactions of the ASABE. 57 (4): 1043–1055. doi:10.13031/trans.57.10327. ISSN 2151-0032. Retrieved January 14, 2016.
  11. Yan, Yuchun; Xu, Xingliang; Xin, Xiaoping; Yang, Guixia; Wang, Xu; Yan, Ruirui; Chen, Baorui (2011-12-01). "Effect of vegetation coverage on aeolian dust accumulation in a semiarid steppe of northern China". CATENA. 87 (3): 351–356. doi:10.1016/j.catena.2011.07.002.
  12. Orgiazzi, A.; Ballabio, C.; Panagos, P.; Jones, A.; Fernández-Ugalde, O. (2018). "LUCAS Soil, the largest expandable soil dataset for Europe: a review". European Journal of Soil Science. 69: 140–153. doi:10.1111/ejss.12499. ISSN 1365-2389.
  13. Borrelli, Pasquale; Ballabio, Cristiano; Panagos, Panos; Montanarella, Luca (2014). "Wind erosion susceptibility of European soils". Geoderma. 232–234: 471–478. Bibcode:2014Geode.232..471B. doi:10.1016/j.geoderma.2014.06.008.
  14. Borrelli, Pasquale; Panagos, Panos; Ballabio, Cristiano; Lugato, Emanuale; Weynants, Melanie; Montanarella, Luca (2016-05-01). "Towards a Pan-European Assessment of Land Susceptibility to Wind Erosion". Land Degradation & Development. 27 (4): 1093–1105. doi:10.1002/ldr.2318. ISSN 1099-145X.
  15. Borrelli, P.; Lugato, E.; Montanarella, L.; Panagos, P. (2017-01-01). "A New Assessment of Soil Loss Due to Wind Erosion in European Agricultural Soils Using a Quantitative Spatially Distributed Modelling Approach". Land Degradation & Development. 28 (1): 335–344. doi:10.1002/ldr.2588. ISSN 1099-145X.
  16. Li, Junran; Okin, Gregory S.; Alvarez, Lorelei; Epstein, Howard (2007-08-08). "Quantitative effects of vegetation cover on wind erosion and soil nutrient loss in a desert grassland of southern New Mexico, USA". Biogeochemistry. 85 (3): 317–332. doi:10.1007/s10533-007-9142-y. ISSN 0168-2563. S2CID 93280562.
  17. Lancaster, Nicholas; Baas, Andy (1998-01-01). "Influence of vegetation cover on sand transport by wind: field studies at Owens Lake, California". Earth Surface Processes and Landforms. 23 (1): 69–82. Bibcode:1998ESPL...23...69L. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1096-9837(199801)23:1<69::AID-ESP823>3.0.CO;2-G. ISSN 1096-9837.
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