Analysis of polygonal cracking patterns in chloride-bearing terrains on Mars: Indicators of ancient playa settings

M. R. El-Maarry, A. Pommerol, N. Thomas

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46 Scopus citations


The ancient southern highlands on Mars (~3.5 Gyr old) contain > 600 regions that display spectral evidence in the infrared for the presence of chloride-bearing materials. Many of these locations were previously reported to display polygonal cracking patterns. We studied more than 80 of the chloride-bearing terrains using high-resolution (0.25-0.5 m/pixel) images, as well as near-infrared spectral data, to characterize the surface textures and the associated cracking patterns and mineralogies. Our study indicates that ~75% of the studied locations display polygonal cracks that resemble desiccation cracks, while some resemble salt expansion/thrust polygons. Furthermore, we detect, spectrally, the presence of smectites in association with ~30% of the studied fractured terrains. We note that smectites are a special class of swelling clay minerals that can induce formation of large desiccation cracks. As such, we suggest that the cracking patterns are indicative of the presence of smectite phyllosilicates even in the absence of spectral confirmation. Our results suggest that many chloride-bearing terrains have a lacustrine origin and a geologic setting similar to playas on Earth. Such locations would have contained ephemeral lakes that may have undergone repeated cycles of desiccation and recharging by a near-surface fluctuating water table in order to account for the salt-phyllosilicates associations. These results have notable implications for the ancient hydrology of Mars. We propose that the morphologies and sizes of the polygonal cracks can be used as paleoenvironmental, as well as lithological, indicators that could be helpful in planning future missions. Key Points Chloride-bearing terrains display polygonal cracking patterns Fe/Mg smectites are associated with chloride-bearing terrains Cracking patterns formed by desiccation of smectites in a playa-like setting

Original languageBritish English
Pages (from-to)2263-2278
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Planets
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2013


  • chlorides
  • cracks
  • desiccation
  • Mars
  • playas
  • smectites


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