The Soil of Long Island Part 1 - Ice Age: The Meltdown

Being a winemaker for 30 years, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the soils of Long Island and how important they are in the production of quality wine. This post is the first in a series I'll be writing where I get down and dirty concerning the wonderful soils of Long Island. As you will see, it’s a fairly fertile topic... As a native Long Islander, I can tell you that while growing up I didn’t know anything about the soil underneath my feet. I knew it was there when my face hit the ground after a tackle or how it filled up my uniform sliding into second base. I knew we planted vegetables and flowers in it, and how it got all over my clothes and shoes and that my mother didn’t want me to bring it into the house. Back in the day, we just called it dirt.

But soil does a lot more than make mud in the rain. Most of us probably don’t realize how unique and wonderful our soil really is. It wasn’t until I got to upstate New York and began studying agronomy that I understood how special Long Island soils are. At home on the Island, we dug and shoveled anywhere we wanted with abandon; in upstate New York it was a chore just trying to put a shovel in the ground. Long Island it seemed, had been blessed.

It all began during the last ice age with this little thing called a glacier. Actually it wasn't so little - the massive wall of snow and ice making up the Late Wisconsin Glacier averaged around 3,000 feet thick in the middle and 1,500 feet high at its southern end. Very slowly and over thousands of years, the ice worked like a giant plow as it moved south, scraping off an average of 65 feet from the surface of New England. Large quantities of rock - much of which was ground into gravel, sand and silt-sized particles - were carried along with the ice until it came to a stop around 50,000 years ago. As it melted, the material that was in front of the glacier was left in place as a ridge called a terminal moraine. This first stop on the glacial tour is known as the Ronkonkoma Moraine and extends from around Roslyn Heights in Nassau County, across central Long Island to the South Fork and Montauk Point. About 21,000 years ago, another thaw followed and the ice retreated further, this time stopping to create the Roanoke Point Moraine and the northern boundary of the North Fork. The Roanoke Point Moraine runs from Port Jefferson out to Orient Point and is technically a recessional moraine as it was formed during a temporary halt in the glacier's retreat. A third and last moraine – named the Harbor Hill Moraine – is now thought to have been the result of a renewed period of glacial advance (around 18,000 years ago) as it seems to cross over the Ronkonkoma and Roanoke Point Moraines, extending from Brooklyn to the vicinity of Port Jefferson.

During all of these glacial pit-stops, the ice melted and enormous quantities of swiftly flowing water ran from the glacier, carrying and sorting the soil materials. Most of the material carried was sand and gravel which was deposited on a broad plain in front of the terminal moraine. This area is known as a glacial outwash plain and makes up the majority of the farmland on Long Island. As the ice kept melting, most of this plain was covered by water or wind-deposited silt, clay and fine sand to varying depths, making up the topsoil of the region.

All of these geological features worked together, over thousands of years to create the place we now live, work, play and make some of the best wine in the world.

If that explanation bored some of you (writing about soil genesis has a tendency to do that) we found an exciting little video for you to watch. Take a look for yourself and watch the glacial creation of Long Island. Next time, I'll let you know all the dirt...                  roh