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If the Sahara used to be fertile and has since experienced minimal rainfall causing the current desert conditions, where did all the sand come from? I assume the original dirt is still there, just underneath the sand.

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    $\begingroup$ I know that some parts of the Sahara are not covered with sand. That doesn't answer the question. $\endgroup$ – BWhite Apr 22 '16 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps the more relevant question is where the finer than sand weathering products have gone? $\endgroup$ – Siv Apr 22 '16 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Siv This is complete hearsay, but in one case where there was silt originally, it was assumed to have blown away. In another case, it was assumed that it was the sand that blew because there was no clay mixed in. In retrospect, wind isn't going to be able to separate sand mixed into clay, so that seems less credible. $\endgroup$ – BWhite Apr 22 '16 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ Many fertile soils contain a lot of sand, naturally. (For instance, the decomposed granite soils found in a lot of places around where I live.) It's mixed with organic matter (humus) and held together by plant roots. If the plants die from lack of water, the organic matter eventually decays and leaves just sand. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 22 '16 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ My understanding is that organic matter that decomposes doesn't just disappear. It might be blown away in dry conditions like the Sahara. $\endgroup$ – BWhite Apr 24 '16 at 2:43
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The sand IS the original dirt, or at least what's left of it.

Sand is one of the major constituents of soil. Soils are roughly half minerals by volume and those minerals are silt, sand, and clay. In fact sand is often the largest single constituent of most common soils. Silt and clay are smaller and lighter, and can be moved by wind much easier when dry, this leads to the removal of everything but the heavier sand particles in very dry conditions. What has happened is that without water and life to bind the material together, wind has removed all the lighter particles leaving nothing but sand and pebbles. Wind is good at sorting grains by size so each area tends to only have one grains size.

Where it came from originally

. Sand is just weathered rock, if you look at a map of the sahara there are quite a few scattered mountains and highlands in the desert. That is where the sand (and the original silt and clay) came from originally, weathering of rock, and the sahara is mostly exposed rock, with sand only making up a minority of its surface.

I suggest the wiki for getting started on soil science, if you are interested, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soil

More on what sand is, http://www.sandatlas.org/sand/

More on wind driven sorting, https://people.ucsc.edu/~jzachos/migrated/eart120/lectures_08/LECT7B.pdf

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Minimum volumes of mobile sand can be estimated for each region of the Sahara, such as the 26 meter average thickness of the Erg Oriental of Algeria. Sand migration model conclusions regarding such volumes of sand are that the current Saharan dune distribution and morphology took at least 1.35 million years to evolve, possibly much longer if there were long periods of aeolian quiescence. Independent geological evidence indicates that cycles of wet and dry periods have occurred over the past 20 million years, corresponding respectively to semi-arid periods of erosion (in the source areas), and to periods of hyper-arid redistribution of sand.

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In less arid times vegetation grows on the dunes and stabilizes them.

Paleoclimate proxy data and computer simulations reveal that the Nebraska Sandhills likely had active sand dunes as recently as the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures in the North Atlantic region[4][5] were about 1°C (1.8°F) warmer than the current climate. Wikipedia Nebraska Sandhills

A thin layer of topsoil is formed.

Aerial photographs of the Spirit Dunes, Manitoba, Canada show this can happen in decades: Spirit Dunes

The Sahara dunes were still there during fertile times - they were just grown over with grass. When conditions became arid, what little topsoil there was blew away and/or was mixed with the sand.

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    $\begingroup$ This does not actually answer the question. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 20 '18 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ @John As I understand it, the OP's hypothesis is that sand came from somewhere else since the fertile time and covered "the original dirt". $\endgroup$ – Keith McClary Jan 23 '18 at 20:49
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Only 25% of the Sahara is sand and dunes. 70% of the Sahara is bare rock and stones.

Un-watermarked version avaliable on www.alamy.com enter image description here

Silicon makes up 27 percent of rocks on average. The Sahara is covered 25 percent by SiO2.

Algeria and Morocco are 800m average, Chad and Egypt are about 500m, Lybia and Mauritania are about 270m

The sand and rock material was there all the time, it's just been changed and collected into dune zones. The quartz is stronger and lighter and it sorts itself to the top, and the dark mafic minerals are sorted by gravity.

The Sahara has had aridity troubles for the last 30 million years, the alps are only 35 million years old. They say it was all green, perhaps like India, Nevada and California and Texas.

It's probably changed from desert to savanna many times in the last millions of years due to ice ages. Perhaps there was a kind of biannual monsoon during ice ages, and the monsoon transitions to the current rain habit every time for the past 35 million years, which is when the alps started forming.

The north african shield has zones hundreds of millions of years old, I cant find pages on the geology of N Africa, it is volcanically active: https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/north-africa.html The massive Atakor volcanic field is the largest in the Hoggar (or Ahaggar) volcanic province of southern Algeria and covers an area of 2150 sq km

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All of you dont account sand from the bottom of the Mediterranean... More recently than we'd like to admit, thousands of years ago, meteorites smashed into the Greece/Israeli regions flooding North Africa and sending Atlantis to its doom in Mauritania. Proof to my claim is being unearthed above the Dead Sea where sulfer, among other things, from a meteorite exploding upon entering the atmosphere has been found. An explosion of 10 megatons vaporized the Dead Sea region leaving the aftermath as told in the bible.

What makes you think another meteorite couldn't have done this? Throw a rock in a shallow puddle and see what happens to the sand where and around you made the impact...

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  • $\begingroup$ Reliable scientific references to support the claims made would vastly improve this answer. $\endgroup$ – Fred Apr 28 at 3:40

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