Present-day gully activity in Sisyphi Cavi, Mars – Flow-like features and block movements

Research areas:
Mars, Mars, surface, Geological processes, Photometry, Mars, climate, Mars, polar geology, Ices
The continuously increasing number of multi-temporal high-resolution images from the surface of Mars offers the possibility for detailed studies of present-day surface activity. In this study we investigated all gullies in the Sisyphi Cavi region (355° E, 71° S) of the south polar region of Mars. This region is influenced by the seasonal deposition of a decimeters-thick translucent slab ice in late autumn/winter and its subsequent sublimation in spring. We mapped all gullies (n = 17.760) and measured their orientations. We also identified gullies with contemporary activity (n = 35) using multi-temporal HiRISE images for martian years (MY) 28 to 34. We observed two different kinds of activity: (1) dark flow-like features, and (2) movement of blocks. For both, sediment was transported from the source region (alcove and/or flanks of channels) down the gully. Using image data from HRSC, CTX, and HiRISE, we monitored the general defrosting of the study region. We also analyzed the maximum daytime surface temperatures of the complete study region based on TES data from MYs 24 to 26. To identify the origin and triggering mechanism of the observed activity, we used: (1) detailed topographic investigations (e.g., slope angles) of two extensively gullied slopes based on two HiRISE-DTMs, (2) identification of small scale displacements with Digital Image Correlation (DIC), and (3) orientation measurements of active gullies and comparison to non-active gullies. We found that for the active gullies studied, activity happens at the end of spring between LS ~ 225° and ~250°. This is consistent with the timing of final stages of defrosting in the region. At this time, some surfaces are already defrosted while others still host the seasonal slab ice cover. For the surfaces with slab ice, dark defrosting spots (and flows, if the surface is inclined) are observed on dark dunes as well as on gully aprons and in gully channels. These spots form when, triggered by basal sublimation generated overpressure, sediment entrained in CO2-gas is transported through cracks within the ice and redeposited onto the frosted surface. We compared and linked both morphologic features (dark dune spots and dark flow-like features) and concluded that these features have comparable or even the same triggering mechanisms. Based on this extensive study, the most plausible mechanism for ongoing gully activity can be divided into two steps: 1) accumulation of material within gully channels via small dry flows on top of the slab ice (comparable to dark dune spots/flows), 2) when a critical mass is reached, the sediment flows down the still frosted gully on top of the sublimating ice or as a mixture of dry material and ice in a catastrophic flow. The triggering factor for the movement of blocks remains unclear, as their timing could not be constrained with the available data. We identified headwall erosion in one gully in the study region, whereas a discrete source could not be identified for the other sites, suggesting multiple failure mechanisms could be active in such gullies. Finally, through volume balance calculations we show that active gullies in Sisyphi Cavi could have been formed within decades to several tens of thousands of MY, but gully-morphology indicates a much-longer period for formation of the entire gully-landform.