Polygonal Patterned Ground: Surface Similarities Between Mars and Earth


[Above] Mars: Summertime view of polygons, highlighted by dark, windblown sand, on the floor of a crater at 71.2°S, 282.6°W.


[Above] Earth: Polygonal cracking can be seen on the floor of Alatna Valley as viewed from Battleship Promontory in Antarctica. These polygons are a result of freeze thaw processes in the permafrost. The polygons in this photo have been highlighted by recent snowfall.

On Earth, periglacial is a term that refers to regions and processes where cold climate contributes to the evolution of landforms and landscapes. Common in periglacial environments on Earth, such as the arctic of northern Canada, Siberia, and Alaska, is a phenomenon called patterned ground. The "patterns" in patterned ground often take the form of large polygons, each bounded by either troughs or ridges made up of rock particles different in size from those seen in the interior of the polygon.

On Earth, many polygons in periglacial environments are directly linked to water: they typically form from stresses induced by repeated freezing and thawing of water, contraction from stress induced by changing temperatures, and sorting of rocks brought to the surface along polygon boundaries by the freeze-thaw processes. Although not exclusively formed by freezing and thawing of water, that is often the dominant mechanism on Earth.

Polygons similar to those found in Earth's arctic and antarctic regions are also found in the polar regions of Mars. Typically, they occur on crater floors, or on intercrater plains, between about 60° and 80° latitude. The polygons are best seen when bright frost or dark sand has been trapped in the troughs that form the polygon boundaries. Three examples of martian polygons seen by the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) are shown here. Each is located in the southern hemisphere:

Some Mars researchers assume that polygons on the Red Planet are key indictors that ground ice is present or was present in the recent past. However, whether these polygons actually required water ice to form is, in fact, unknown, since dry processes are also known on Earth for form similar polygons.

Southern Hemisphere Polygonal Patterned Ground
(a) E09-00029
High Res GIF (1.0 MB)
Southern Hemisphere Polygonal Patterned Ground
(b) E12-02319
High Res GIF (1.0 MB)
Southern Hemisphere Polygonal Patterned Ground
(c) M11-01795
High Res GIF (1.0 MB)

(a) Polygon troughs highlighted by frost as the south polar cap retreats during spring. The circular features are the locations of buried craters that were originally formed by meteor impact. This image, E09-00029, is located at 75.1°S, 331.3°W, and was acquired on 1 October 2001.

(b) Summertime view of polygons, highlighted by dark, windblown sand, on the floor of a crater at 71.2°S, 282.6°W. The image, E12-02319, was obtained on 21 January 2002.

(c) Polygon troughs highlighted by the retreating south polar frost cap during southern summer near 80.7°S, 70.4°W. This picture, M11-01795, was taken by MOC on 13 January 2000.

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems; Dale Andersen

Text Source: NASA JPL, Dale Andersen


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