Importance of aeolian processes in the origin of the north polar chasmata, Mars

Nicholas H. Warner, Jack Farmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


A detailed examination of the location and orientation of sand dunes and other aeolian features within the north polar chasmata indicates that steep scarps strongly influence the direction and intensity of prevailing winds. These steep scarps are present at the heads and along the margins of the north polar chasmata. Topographic profiles of the arcuate head scarps and equator-facing wall of Chasma Boreale reveal unusually steep polar slopes ranging from ∼6°-30°. The relatively steep-sloped (∼8°), sinuous scarp at the head of two smaller chasmata, located west of Chasma Boreale, exhibits an obvious resistant cap-forming unit. Scarp retreat is occurring in places where the cap unit is actively being undercut by descending slope winds. Low-albedo surfaces lacking sand dunes or dust mantles are present at the base of the polar scarps. A ∼100-300 m deep moat, located at the base of the scarps, corresponds with these surfaces and indicates an area of active aeolian scour from descending katabatic winds. Small local dust storms observed along the equator-facing wall of Chasma Boreale imply that slope wind velocities in Chasma Boreale are sufficient to mobilize dust and sand-sized particles in the Polar Layered Deposits (PLD). Two amphitheater forms, located above the cap-forming unit of the sinuous scarp and west of Chasma Boreale, may represent an early stage of polar scarp and chasma formation. These two forms are developing within a younger section of polar layered materials. The unusually steep scarps associated with the polar chasmata have developed where resistant layers are present in the PLD, offering resistance during the headward erosion and poleward retreat of the scarps. Steep slopes that formed under these circumstances enhance the flow of down-scarp katabatic winds. On the basis of these observations, we reject the fluvial outflood hypothesis for the origin of the north polar chasmata and embrace a wind erosion model for their long-term development. In the aeolian model, off-pole katabatic winds progressively remove materials from the steep slopes below chasmata scarps, undermining resistant layers at the tops of scarps and causing retreat by headward erosion. Assuming a minimum age for the onset of formation of Chasma Boreale (105 yr) results in a maximum volumetric erosion rate of 0.35   km3 yr-1. Removal of this volume of material from the equator-facing wall and head scarps of chasma would require a rate for scarp retreat of 0.5   m yr-1.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)368-384
Number of pages17
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2008


  • Mars
  • polar caps
  • polar geology
  • surface

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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