Loess is an aeolian sediment formed by the accumulation of wind-blown silt, typically in the 20–50 micrometer size range, twenty percent or less clay and the balance equal parts sand and silt that are loosely cemented by calcium carbonate. It is usually homogeneous and highly porous and is traversed by vertical capillaries that permit the sediment to fracture and form vertical bluffs.
The word loess, with connotations of origin by wind-deposited accumulation, came into English from German Löss, which can be traced back to Swiss German and is cognate with the English word loose and the German word los. It was first applied to Rhine River valley loess about 1821.
Loess is homogeneous, porous, friable, pale yellow or buff, slightly coherent, typically non-stratified and often calcareous. Loess grains are angular with little polishing or rounding and composed of crystals of quartz, feldspar, mica and other minerals. Loess can be described as a rich, dust-like soil.
Loess deposits may become very thick, more than a hundred meters in areas of China and tens of meters in parts of the Midwestern United States. It generally occurs as a blanket deposit that covers areas of hundreds of square kilometers and tens of meters thick.
Loess often stands in either steep or vertical faces. Because the grains are angular, loess will often stand in banks for many years without slumping. This soil has a characteristic called vertical cleavage which makes it easily excavated to form cave dwellings, a popular method of making human habitations in some parts of China. Loess will erode very readily.