Use of scanning electron microscopy to investigate records of soil weathering preserved in lake sediment

Holly A. Ewing, Ed Nater

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Reconstruction of soil weathering is one of the more difficult problems for palaeoecologists interested in landscape-scale environmental changes. Here we use scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive x-ray analysis (SEM/EDS) to study the pitting of feldspars in soils and lake sediments at two sites in the Great Lakes region, USA. A semi-quantitative feldspar weathering index (FWI) allows description of the weathering status for large numbers of individual grains, and reveals differences among soil horizons and strata of lake sediment as well as between the two sites. Feldspars in upper soil horizons generally have greater FWI than those in lower horizons, but analyses also suggest considerable weathering in the soil C horizon at the site with more rapid water infiltration. At one site, the FWI of upper soil horizons and surface lake sediment are similar, implying that lake sediments have the potential to record changes in soil over time. However, differences between upper soil horizons and surface sediment at the other site highlight the need to examine more sites and more profiles within sites to better relate catchment and sediment characteristics. We interpret increases in the FWI over time within lake sediments as evidence of progressive weathering of soils and conclude that the sites had different histories of soil development. However, the complexities of sediment deposition in lakes and the paucity of information relating FWI to soil characteristics prevent straightforward reconstruction of soil development. Variability within each record appears tied to initial grain chemistry, depositional environment, changes in lake level and progressive degradation of grains. As more information relating micromorphology to soil characteristics becomes available, this technique should become a more useful complement to chemical studies of lake sediment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-60
Number of pages10
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2003


  • Energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy
  • Feldspars
  • Holocene
  • Lake sediment
  • Palaeoecology
  • Scanning electron microscopy
  • Soil development
  • Soil weathering
  • Weathering index


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