Stratigraphy and sedimentology of a dry to wet eolian depositional system, Burns formation, Meridiani Planum, Mars
Outcrop exposures of sedimentary rocks at the Opportunity landing site (Meridiani Planum) form a set of genetically related strata defined here informally as the Burns formation. This formation can be subdivided into lower, middle, and upper units which, respectively, represent eolian dune, eolian sand sheet, and mixed eolian sand sheet and interdune facies associations. Collectively, these three units are at least 7 m thick and define a "wetting-upward" succession which records a progressive increase in the influence of groundwater and, ultimately, surface water in controlling primary depositional processes. The Burns lower unit is interpreted as a dry dune field (though grain composition indicates an evaporitic source), whose preserved record of large-scale cross-bedded sandstones indicates either superimposed bedforms of variable size or reactivation of lee-side slip faces by episodic (possibly seasonal) changes in wind direction. The boundary between the lower and middle units is a significant eolian deflation surface. This surface is interpreted to record eolian erosion down to the capillary fringe of the water table, where increased resistance to wind-induced erosion was promoted by increased sediment cohesiveness in the capillary fringe. The overlying Burns middle unit is characterized by fine-scale planar-laminated to low-angle-stratified sandstones. These sandstones accumulated during lateral migration of eolian impact ripples over the flat to gently undulating sand sheet surface. In terrestrial settings, sand sheets may form an intermediate environment between dune fields and interdune or playa surfaces. The contact between the middle and upper units of the Burns formation is interpreted as a diagenetic front, where recrystallization in the phreatic or capillary zones may have occurred. The upper unit of the Burns formation contains a mixture of sand sheet facies and interdune facies. Interdune facies include wavy bedding, irregular lamination with convolute bedding and possible small tepee or salt-ridge structures, and cm-scale festoon cross-lamination indicative of shallow subaqueous flows marked by current velocities of a few tens of cm/s. Most likely, these currents were gravity-driven, possibly unchannelized flows resulting from the flooding of interdune/playa surfaces. However, evidence for lacustrine sedimentation, including mudstones or in situ bottom-growth evaporites, has not been observed so far at Eagle and Endurance craters. Mineralogical and elemental data indicate that the eolian sandstones of the lower and middle units, as well as the subaqueous and eolian deposits of the Burns upper unit, were derived from an evaporitic source. This indirectly points to a temporally equivalent playa where lacustrine evaporites or ground-water-generated efflorescent crusts were deflated to provide a source of sand-sized particles that were entrained to form eolian dunes and sand sheets. This process is responsible for the development of sulfate eolianites at White Sands, New Mexico, and could have provided a prolific flux of sulfate sediment at Meridiani. Though evidence for surface water in the Burns formation is mostly limited to the upper unit, the associated sulfate eolianites provide strong evidence for the critical role of groundwater in controlling sediment production and stratigraphic architecture throughout the formation.