Sorted clastic stripes, lobes and associated gullies in high-latitude craters on Mars: Landforms indicative of very recent, polycyclic ground-ice thaw and liquid flows

Research areas:
Year:
2011
Keywords:
Geological processes, Mars, Mars, climate, Mars, surface
Authors:
Journal:
Icarus
Volume:
211
Number:
1
Pages:
458-471
Month:
January
ISSN:
0019-1035
Abstract:
Self-organised patterns of stone stripes, polygons, circles and clastic solifluction lobes form by the sorting of clasts from fine-grained sediments in freeze–thaw cycles. We present new High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) images of Mars which demonstrate that the slopes of high-latitude craters, including Heimdal crater – just 25&\#xa0;km east of the Phoenix Landing Site – are patterned by all of these landforms. The order of magnitude improvement in imaging data resolution afforded by HiRISE over previous datasets allows not only the reliable identification of these periglacial landforms but also shows that high-latitude fluviatile gullies both pre- and post-date periglacial patterned ground in several high-latitude settings on Mars. Because thaw is inherent to the sorting processes that create these periglacial landforms, and from the association of this landform assemblage with fluviatile gullies, we infer the action of liquid water in a fluvio-periglacial context. We conclude that these observations are evidence of the protracted, widespread action of thaw liquids on and within the martian regolith. Moreover, the size frequency statistics of superposed impact craters demonstrate that this freeze–thaw environment is, at least in Heimdal crater, less than a few million years old. Although the current martian climate does not favour prolonged thaw of water ice, observations of possible liquid droplets on the strut of the Phoenix Lander may imply significant freezing point depression of liquids sourced in the regolith, probably driven by the presence of perchlorates in the soil. Because perchlorates have eutectic temperatures below 240&\#xa0;K and can remain liquid at temperatures far below the freezing point of water we speculate that freeze–thaw involving perchlorate brines provides an alternative “low-temperature” hypothesis to the freeze–thaw of more pure water ice and might drive significant geomorphological work in some areas of Mars. Considering the proximity of Heimdal crater to the Phoenix Landing Site, the presence of such hydrated minerals might therefore explain the landforms described here. If this is the case then the geographical distribution of martian freeze–thaw landforms might reflect relatively high temperatures (but still below 273&\#xa0;K) and the locally elevated concentration of salts in the regolith.