Present-day formation and seasonal evolution of linear dune gullies on Mars

Research areas:
Geological processes, Ices, Mars, Mars, climate, Mars, surface
Linear dune gullies are a sub-type of martian gullies. As their name suggests they only occur on sandy substrates and comprise very long (compared to their width) straight or sinuous channels, with relatively small source areas and almost non-existent visible deposits. Linear dune gullies have never been observed on terrestrial dunes and their formation process on Mars is unclear. Here, we present the results of the first systematic survey of these features in Mars’ southern hemisphere and an in-depth study of six dunefields where repeat-imaging allows us to monitor the changes in these gullies over time. This study was undertaken with HiRISE images at 25–30 cm/pix and 1 m/pix elevation data derived from HiRISE stereo images. We find the latitudinal distribution and orientation of linear dune gullies broadly consistent with the general population of martian gullies. They occur predominantly between 36.3°S and 54.3°S, and occasionally between 64.6°S and 70.4°S. They are generally oriented toward SSW (at bearings between 150° and 260°). We find that these gullies are extremely active over the most recent 5 Martian years of images. Activity comprises: (1) appearance of new channels, (2) lengthening of existing channels, (3) complete or partial reactivation, and (4) disappearance of gullies. We find that gully channels lengthen by ∼100 m per year. The intense activity and the progressive disappearance of linear dune gullies argues against the hypothesis that these are remnant morphologies left over from previous periods of high obliquity millions of years ago. The activity of linear dune gullies reoccurs every year between the end of winter and the beginning of spring (Ls 167.4°–216.6°), and coincides with the final stages of the sublimation of annual CO₂ ice deposit. This activity often coincides spatially and temporally with the appearance of recurrent diffusing flows (RDFs)—digitate-shaped, dark patches with low relative albedo (up to 48\% lower than the adjacent dune) that encompass the active site. South- and SSW-facing dune slopes are those which preferentially host CO2 frost deposits, however, it is only those with angles of ∼20° just below the crest which possess linear dune gullies, suggesting a slope-limited formation process. These observations provide a wealth of temporal and morphometric data that can be used to undertake numerical modeling, to direct future image monitoring and guide laboratory experiments that can be used to better constrain the formation process of these features.