Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Department of


Document Type


Date of this Version



GEOSPHERE, v. 14, no. 4


© 2018 The Authors

Open access


Sheeting joints are ubiquitous in outcrops of the Navajo Sandstone on the west-central Colorado Plateau, USA. As in granitic terrains, these are opening- mode fractures and form parallel to land surfaces. In our study areas in south-central Utah, liquefaction during Jurassic seismic events destroyed stratification in large volumes of eolian sediment, and first-order sheeting joints are now preferentially forming in these structureless (isotropic) sandstones. Vertical cross-joints abut the land-surface-parallel sheeting joints, segmenting broad (tens of meters) rock sheets into equant, polygonal slabs ~5 m wide and 0.25 m thick. On steeper slopes, exposed polygonal slabs have domed surfaces; eroded slabs reveal an onion-like internal structure formed by 5-m-wide, second-order sheeting joints that terminate against the crossjoints, and may themselves be broken into polygons. In many structureless sandstone bodies, however, the lateral extent of first-order sheeting joints is severely limited by pre-existing, vertical tectonic joints. In this scenario, non-conjoined sheeting joints form extensive agglomerations of laterally contiguous, polygonal domes 3–6 m wide, exposing exhumed sheeting joints. These laterally confined sheeting joints are, in turn, segmented by short vertical cross-joints into numerous small (~0.5 m) polygonal rock masses. We hypothesize that the sheeting joints in the Navajo Sandstone form via contemporaneous, land-surface-parallel compressive stresses, and that vertical cross-joints that delineate polygonal masses (both large and small) form during compression-driven buckling of thin, convex-up rock slabs. Abrasion of friable sandstone during runoff events widens vertical tectonic joints into gullies, enhancing land-surface convexity. Polygonal rock slabs described here provide a potential model for interpretation of similar-appearing patterns developed on the surface of Mars.