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New type of sand wedge polygons in the salt cemented soils of the hyper-arid Atacama Desert

Sager, Christof; Airo, Alessandro; Arens, Felix L.; Schulze-Makuch, Dirk

Zentrum für Astronomie und Astrophysik

Polygonal grounds are landscape features commonly associated with periglacial environments originating from freeze-thawing cycles or frost-related processes. However, such a genesis is unlikely for polygonal grounds on alluvial surfaces in the warm and hyper-arid Atacama Desert due to the lack of enduring sub-zero temperatures and limited water availability, whereas a cracking mechanism based on thermal contraction and/or desiccation is more plausible. To differentiate between those mechanisms, we performed a quantitative morphometric terrain characterization in combination with a geochemical and sedimentological analysis on three polygonal networks located in the Yungay area of the Atacama Desert, Chile. Our data show that these sand wedge polygons differ from other polygonal features in the Yungay area such as salt polygons and mud crack polygons from playa environments in regard to composition, morphometry and topographical setting. The investigated polygonal soils are composed of siliciclastic sediment that is mainly cemented by sulfates (gypsum & anhydrite) in the shallow ground (~0–50 cm) and by nitrates and chlorides in the deeper ground (~50–100 cm) while being separated by about 1 m deep, salt-poor and V-shaped sand wedges. The low clay content (~2 wt%) makes an exclusive desiccation origin less relevant whereas the high salt content (63 wt%) and the high surface temperature variations make thermal contraction origin more likely. Morphometric data indicate a link between topography and polygon geometry, as the flat-centered polygons (mean size 3.9 to 4.7 m) are aligned either in slope direction or perpendicular to it, while being more elongated on steeper slopes, which is common to thermal contraction polygons. Although we cannot exclude that desiccation cracking plays a minor role for the formation of the here described polygons, we conclude that their genesis is dominated by thermal contraction.