Loess Hills Geology Page
Many Americans think of Iowa as having little topographic variation. However, in westernmost Iowa the Loess Hills rise 200 feet above the flat plains forming a narrow band running north-south 200 miles along the Missouri River. The steep angles and sharp bluffs on the western side of the Loess Hills are in sharp contrast to the flat rectangular cropfields of the Missouri River flood plain. From the east, gently rolling hills blend into steep ridges.
Loess (pronounced "luss"), is German for loose or crumbly. It is a gritty, lightweight, porous material composed of tightly packed grains of quartz, feldspar, mica, and other minerals. Loess is the source of most of our Nation's rich agricultural soils and is common in the U.S. and around the world. However, Iowa's Loess Hills are unusual because the layers of loess are extraordinarily thick, as much as 200 feet in some places. The extreme thickness of the loess layers and the intricately carved terrain of the Loess Hills make them a rare geologic feature. Shaanxi, China, is the only other location where loess layers are as deep and extensive. Though much older (2.5 million years) and much thicker (nearly 300 feet) than Iowa's loess, the Shaanxi loess hills have been greatly altered by both natural and human activity and no longer retain their original characteristics.
Origin of the Loess Hills
Although early geologists assumed loess was either fluvial (deposited by a river) or lacustrine (formed in a lake), today we know that loess was eolian (deposited by the wind). During the Ice Age, glaciers advanced down into the mid-continent of North America, grinding underlying rock into a fine powderlike sediment called "glacial flour." As temperatures warmed, the glaciers melted and enormous amounts of water and sediment rushed down the Missouri River valley. The sediment was eventually deposited on flood plains downstream, creating huge mud flats.
During the winters the meltwaters would recede, leaving the mud flats exposed. As they dried, fine-grained mud material called silt was picked up and carried by strong winds. These large dust clouds were moved eastward by prevailing westerly winds and were redeposited over broad areas. Heavier, coarser silt, deposited closest to its Missouri River flood plain source, formed sharp, high bluffs on the western margin of the Loess Hills. Finer, lighter silt, deposited farther east, created gently sloping hills on the eastern margin. This process repeated for thousands of years, building layer upon layer until the loess reached thicknesses of 60 feet or more and became the dominant feature of the terrain.
The Loess Hills are comprised of three major layers. From oldest to youngest, the layers are known as the Loveland Loess, (120,000 to 159,000 years old), the Pisgah Loess (25,000 to 31,000 years old), and the Peoria Loess (12,500-25,000 years old).
Clues in the loess layers help geologists determine the rate at which the loess was deposited. For example, ripples mean accumulation took place very quickly. Thin dark bands in the loess indicate the presence of soil and vegetation which means little or no deposition was occurring. Erosion has exposed other geologic formations beneath the loess, such as glacial deposits of sand and gravel and much-older limestone rocks. A 15-inch layer of volcanic ash can be seen in some road cuts, the result of eruptions at now-extinct volcanoes near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming more than 710,000 years ago. Areas of solid bedrock can be observed in deep quarries along the western edge of the Loess Hills.