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Who wins in the fight of wind vs. ice?

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A Piece of Mars: This is the crest of one of the largest dunes on Mars (0.5×0.5 km or 0.31×0.31 mi). The wind mostly blows from the right, slowly pushing sand up the windward slope. But frost accumulates on (and probably in) the sand during winter, and sometimes it gets too heavy and slides down the steepest slope (toward the left), carving out big gullies in the sand. And then the wind blows some more, trying to erase the gullies by 1) making ripples, 2) burying the gullies (the featureless blue patches are grainfall, which is a fancy term for sand that fell as airfall), and 3) forming dust devils that leave faint but wide tracks. Who wins this fight, wind or ice? Neither: gravity wins (it usually does). (HiRISE ESP_020876_1330, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Mars’ yin-yangs

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A Piece of Mars: Is this 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) scene showing a 150 m (492 ft) wide yin-yang symbol on Mars? Sort of, maybe, if you blur your eyes and lend me artistic license, but it’s not doing so intentionally. One side of the crater is dark and the other is light. Both have their tone because of windblown material blown from the same direction, but the different materials collected where they did for different reasons. The dark material is probably mafic sand (iron and magnesium-rich, like what’s found near many volcanoes), which was bounced along the ground from the lower right, and collected in the lee of the crater rim. The bright material is much finer-grained, dust carried aloft, and it probably settled down on the far side of the crater, and outside as well, as the crater rim poked into the wind and provided enough shelter to let some of the bright material settle out as airfall. (HiRISE ESP_016496_2000, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

The two-faced dunes of Mars

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A Piece of Mars: The focus of this 0.96×0.96 km (0.6×0.6 mi) scene is one of many two-faced dunes on Mars. The bright sunlit slope is one face, formed recently by wind blowing from the upper right. The dark shaded slope is the other face – it’s a little older, formed by wind blowing from the left. Together these two winds alternate, probably in different seasons, forcing the sand into a needle-shaped point that carries sand in a direction that is, give or take, the sum of those two winds. Two-faced dunes like this are rare on Earth, as winds here typically quickly erase older crestlines. (HiRISE ESP_021716_1685, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Dunes + Craters = Mars

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A Piece of Mars: How do you tell when a planetary landscape shows Mars, instead of Mercury or the Moon or Europa? The easiest way to tell is to look for both craters and dunes, like what’s shown here in this 640×360 m (0.4×0.22 mi) scene. Not all martian landscapes have either feature, and there are some other worlds that do have both (Earth, Titan, maybe Pluto, and probably Venus but we need better data…), but it’s a pretty good bet that if you see both features together, you’re looking at Mars. Anyway, in this lovely view, the dark gray terrain (you’ll see boulders if you look closely enough!) is being eroded away slowly, revealing a much older, brighter surface beneath it. Unfortunately for those who would study ancient terrains on Mars, much of that older, lower surface is covered in dunes. But I like the dunes – they give us information about surface erosion rates and wind patterns. One person’s signal is another person’s noise. (HiRISE ESP_047762_1585, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Mars’ giant sweaters

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A Piece of Mars: Sometimes in the floors of small craters, the wind blows in from several directions to produce odd polygon-shaped dunes that look like crochet (maybe Mars is making sweaters for its craters – it is, after all, a cold place). This “sweater” segment is 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) in size (the “stitches” are ~20 m, or 66 ft, across). The smaller interior lines are younger windblown features, that are superposed on the larger structures – their alignment is strongly controlled by the topography of the larger polygonal “stitches”. (HiRISE ESP_017833_1975, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Dunes carving up rock (3D)

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A Piece of Mars: Get out your 3D blue/red glasses (or look here for a 2D version if you can’t find them). This is a 3.2×1.8 km (2×1.13 mi) scene showing dark dunes carving lanes 50-70 m (165-230 ft) deep into a stack of brighter sedimentary layers. Over time, the sand wears down the rock into yardangs, the elongated remnants of rock the sand didn’t manage to reach. Here we see the process ongoing; perhaps in a few million years there will be nothing left but a few streamlined peaks. Those murdering basterds [sic]. (HiRISE ESP_034419_2015, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Tortoise and hare

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A Piece of Mars: There’s a lot of evidence for both fast and slow movement in this 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) scene.

The tortoise: The rippled surface at the top is high ground: the top of a dune. Wind pushes the ripples toward a steep sunlit slope, creating long thin, dark avalanches that slowly inch the slipface forward. At the bottom of the slope, which is shielded from winds blowing from the top, ripples have been formed by wind blowing from the left.

The hare: Oblivious to both the slow progression of ripples and dunes, 5-25 m wide dust devils have blazed on by, leaving behind erratic trails.

(HiRISE ESP_048592_2070, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Crater ejecta on old ripples

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A Piece of Mars: Mars rarely does anything without drama. Long ago in this 0.96×0.54 km (0.6×0.34 mi) scene, large ripples formed and then, presumably, lithified (turned into rock). Some time after that, an impact formed the crater in the center, throwing debris into an ejecta blanket that covered the lithified ripples. That ejecta blanket sat around long enough to acquire some smaller impact craters of its own. Since then, most of that ejecta blanket has eroded away, exposing the ripples to view once again. (HiRISE ESP_011699_1910, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Steno’s principles, or “how to make sense of pretty landscapes”

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A Piece of Mars: Nicholas Steno was a 19th century geologist, who came up with some principles that are still used today to guide interpretation of exposed sedimentary rocks. The principles seem a bit obvious, but then some of the most profound principles can be like that. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society describes them in more detail here, with really good examples. You can use these principles to do forensics on a landscape, to see what happened and when.

You can see all three principles at work in this image.

#1: Stuff makes horizontal layers. (This isn’t always true, e.g., dunes and deltas make tilted layers, but most sediments pile up into flat, horizontal layers.) You can see that at work here: A thick layer of dark gray stuff once piled up on a flat surface of brighter stuff. Some of the dark gray stuff has since eroded away, but you can see that both the gray and the brighter stuff originally piled up in flat-lying layers.

#2: Older stuff is at the bottom. (Because newer stuff buries the older stuff, like the papers on my desk and the veggies in my fridge.) In this image, the brighter stuff must be older than the darker gray stuff, because the bright stuff is on the bottom.

#3: You can’t see the layers until they’re exposed by erosion or tectonics. (Because they’re buried. So if you see layers, you know something has happened so you can see them.) You can see the edges of the dark gray stuff, so you know it’s been partially eroded away – otherwise you’d never know the underlying bright stuff was ever there. Some of the material from the dark gray layer has been reformed into dark bedforms on the brighter layer, and those bedforms are probably the youngest features in this scene.

What I like most about this image has to do with yet another principle of layered stuff: Things that cut across other things are younger. Things that have been cut across are older (Like if you chop down a tree, then the axe cuts on the tree trunk must have been made after the tree itself grew. Duh, right?). You can see that in this image: on top of the dark gray layer are some old bedforms. They must be quite old, even cemented or lithified (turned into rock that the wind can’t easily move), because they’ve been cut by erosion at the edge of the gray layer. So not only was the gray layer once more extensive, but it had ripples on it, and those ripples formed and became immobile before that erosion ever happened.

(HiRISE ESP_030460_1525, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

The trail of a dune

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A Piece of Mars: A low, broad dune occupies the center of this 800×450 m (0.5×0.28 mi) scene, blown by a dominant wind towards the lower left. The slip face on the lee side has several small avalanches, formed as the slope oversteepens (this is how dunes crawl along the surface). Upwind, among other fainter lines, is a prominent bright line: it is a former slip face of this dune, possibly formed from a thick accumulation of bright dust (maybe there was a big dust storm that year). Farther upwind, another dune slowly approaches. (HiRISE ESP_033955_2065, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)