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Volume 22 Issue 8 (August 2012)

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Article, pp. 4-9 | Full Text | PDF (1.4MB)

Deep-water polygonal fault systems as terrestrial analogs for large-scale Martian polygonal terrains

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Lorena Moscardelli*, Tim Dooley, Dallas Dunlap, Martin Jackson, Lesli Wood

Bureau of Economic Geology, Jackson School of Geosciences, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas, 78713-8924, USA


Discovery of giant polygonal terrains on Mars has prompted a 30-year debate over how they formed. The prevailing hypothesis is that small-scale Martian polygons formed by thermal contraction, as in terrestrial permafrost environments. Large-scale (>1 km) Martian polygons in the northern plains are visible in THEMIS, MOLA, Viking, and Mariner data, but how they formed remains enigmatic. We suggest that terrestrial deep-water marine polygons are morphological and perhaps genetic analogs to large-scale Martian polygonal features. The terrestrial, deep-water polygons are imaged in three-dimensional seismic-reflection data acquired by the oil and gas industry in offshore Norway and the Gulf of Mexico.

How deep-water polygonal fault systems form is a debated topic beyond the scope of this work. However, similarities between terrestrial deep-water polygonal fault systems and large-scale Martian polygonal terrains suggest that the latter could have formed during deep-water marine deposition. Deep-water polygonal faults form within fine-grained sediment at shallow burial depths. Increases in slope angles can trigger downslope disaggregation of deep-water polygons and mass wasting (forming debris flows). Physical models indicate that multidirectional extension can cause polygonal features to break up on a slope over a mobile substrate. Some knobby terrains in the Vastitas Borealis Formation seem to originate from disaggregation of large-scale Martian polygonal terrains. These analogies suggest a possible deep-water subaqueous origin for large-scale Martian polygonal terrains and support the idea of a late Hesperian–early Amazonian ocean on the northern plains of Mars.


Manuscript received 13 Jan. 2012; accepted 15 May 2012.

DOI: 10.1130/GSATG147A.1