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Eolian erosion of polygons in the Atacama Desert as a proxy for hyper-arid environments on Earth and beyond

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

Polygonal networks occur on various terrestrial and extraterrestrial surfaces holding valuable information on the pedological and climatological conditions under which they develop. However, unlike periglacial polygons that are commonly used as an environmental proxy, the information that polygons in the hyper-arid Atacama Desert can provide is little understood. To promote their use as a proxy, we investigated a polygonal network within an inactive channel that exhibits uncommonly diverse surface morphologies and mineral compositions, using geochemical and remote sensing techniques. Our findings show that the polygons belong to a continuous network of the same genetic origin. Their differences result from post-formational differential eolian erosion up to 50 cm depth, exposing indurated subsurface horizons rich in sulfate or nitrate and chloride. Their location in an ancient channel could lead to the misinterpretation of fluvial polygon erosion, however, we find no such signs but evidence for aqueous resurfacing of microtopography by fog and minimal rainwater infiltration. Our findings extend the use of polygons as proxies in the Atacama Desert, indicating saline soils and hyper-arid conditions. We conclude that this example of polygon erosion can guide future polygon research, especially regarding the use of erosional surfaces on Earth and beyond to gain valuable subsurface insights.
Published in: Scientific Reports, 10.1038/s41598-022-16404-y, SpringerNature