Silt is created by a variety of physical processes capable of splitting the generally sand-sized quartz crystals of primary rocks by exploiting deficiencies in their lattice. These involve chemical weathering of rock and regolith, and a number of physical weathering processes such as frost shattering and haloclasty. The main process is abrasion through transport, including fluvial comminution, aeolian attrition and glacial grinding. It is in semi-arid environments that substantial quantities of silt are produced. Silt is sometimes known as "rock flour" or "stone dust", especially when produced by glacial action. Mineralogically, silt is composed mainly of quartz and feldspar. Sedimentary rock composed mainly of silt is known as siltstone. Liquefaction created by a strong earthquake is silt suspended in water that is hydrodynamically forced up from below ground level.
In the Udden–Wentworth scale (due to Krumbein), silt particles range between 0.0039 and 0.0625 mm, larger than clay but smaller than sand particles. ISO 14688 grades silts between 0.002 mm and 0.063 mm (sub-divided up into three grades fine, medium and coarse 0.002 mm to 0.006 mm to 0.020 mm to 0.063 mm). In actuality, silt is chemically distinct from clay, and unlike clay, grains of silt are approximately the same size in all dimensions; furthermore, their size ranges overlap. Clays are formed from thin plate-shaped particles held together by electrostatic forces, so present a cohesion. Pure silts are not cohesive. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Texture Classification system, the sand–silt distinction is made at the 0.05 mm particle size. The USDA system has been adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In the Unified Soil Classification System (USCS) and the AASHTO Soil Classification system, the sand–silt distinction is made at the 0.075 mm particle size (i.e., material passing the #200 sieve). Silts and clays are distinguished mechanically by their plasticity.
Silt is easily transported in water or other liquid and is fine enough to be carried long distances by air in the form of dust. Thick deposits of silty material resulting from deposition by aeolian processes are often called loess. Silt and clay contribute to turbidity in water. Silt is transported by streams or by water currents in the ocean. When silt appears as a pollutant in water the phenomenon is known as siltation.
Silt, deposited by annual floods along the Nile River, created the rich, fertile soil that sustained the Ancient Egyptian civilization. Silt deposited by the Mississippi River throughout the 20th century has decreased due to a system of levees, contributing to the disappearance of protective wetlands and barrier islands in the delta region surrounding New Orleans.
In southeast Bangladesh, in the Noakhali district, cross dams were built in the 1960s whereby silt gradually started forming new land called "chars". The district of Noakhali has gained more than 73 square kilometres (28 sq mi) of land in the past 50 years.