National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Date of this Version



Earth Surf. Process. Landforms 40, (2015) pp. 1939–1950 . DOI: 10.1002/esp.3771


Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Used by permission.


Miocene continental saltpans are scattered in the Central Valley of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest regions on Earth. These evaporitic deposits are hydrologically inactive, and are detached from groundwater brines or aquifers. The surface of the saltpans, also known as salars, comprises desiccation polygons, commonly with nodular salt structures along their sides. The morphology and bulk mineralogy of salt polygons differs between and within salars, and the shape and internal structure of salt nodules varies between different polygon types. Based on field observation, and mineralogy and crystallography data, we generated a conceptual model for the genesis and evolution of these surface features, whereby rare rainfall events are responsible for the transformation of desiccation salt polygons and the initial formation of salt nodules along polygon borders. In addition, frequent, but less intense, deliquescence events further drive the evolution of salt nodules, resulting in a characteristic internal structure that includes laminations, and changes in porosity and crystal morphologies. As a result, and despite the extreme dryness, the surfaces of fossil salars are dynamic on timescales of several years to decades, in response to daily cycles in atmospheric moisture, and also to rare and meager rainfall events. We propose that fossil salars in the Atacama Desert represent an end stage in the evolution of evaporitic deposits under extreme and prolonged dryness.