The formation of irregular polygonal ridge networks, Nili Fossae, Mars: Implications for extensive subsurface channelized fluid flow in the Noachian
Roughly 16,000, ∼20-50 m wide, morphologically diverse, erosionally resistant ridges have been exhumed and mapped in Noachian-aged terrain across a large region in Nili Fossae and the Nilosyrtis Highlands. However, the formation of these landforms has been widely debated. Their morphology and geologic context suggest surface processes such as aeolian, fluvial, and glacial sedimentary deposition are unlikely candidates for their formation. Possible subsurface ridge formation mechanisms include: 1) volcanic dike intrusions along pre-existing fractures, 2) breccia dikes from impact cratering, 3) clastic dikes or deformation bands, and 4) chemical alteration or precipitation of minerals in or along pre-existing fractures or faults. The ridges are being exhumed from a phyllosilicate-bearing host rock, but whether the ridges themselves have an aqueous origin remains unknown. Although, previous studies used comparative morphology to assess their formation, each hypothesized formation mechanism implies different mineralogical suites possibly detectable in remotely sensed spectral data.Here we combine spectral and morphological analyses to assess the origin of a subset of ridges (n = 797) that have irregular polygonal ridge network morphology. We use observations from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) and High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), supplemented with Context Camera (CTX) imagery, to analyze the spectral signatures and geometry in order to 1) measure ridge morphology (orientation and intersection angles) and 2) isolate the spectral signatures of the ridges from their host unit to evaluate hypothesized ridge formation mechanisms. The irregular polygonal nature, near-orthogonal intersections, and lack of dominant orientation are characteristics consistent with fracture propagation under horizontal near-isotropic extensional stress in a physically heterogeneous host rock (inconsistent with impact- or volcanic-related features). Alternatively, very shallow clastic intrusion could produce similar ridge geometry. Our key findings are: 1) ridge orientation-frequency and distribution suggest mineralization or cementation of subsurface fractures or shallow clastic intrusions as favored formation mechanisms and 2) ridges share all the diagnostic spectral features of Mg-smectite (saponite) and/or mixed-layered talc-saponite clays of the host materials; however, ridges express weaker absorptions. If the CRISM spatial and/or spectral resolution has not limited our ability to detect a spectrally unique cementing agent, then both grain size or texture and visible to near-infrared inactive mineralogy could be responsible for the ridge's weaker spectral absorptions (such as quartz and silica, some oxide group minerals, and amorphous materials). Our results imply that shallow subsurface groundwater and hydrothermal activity was likely extensive prior to and during the opening of the Nili Fossae and played an integral role in the formation of the ridges observed throughout the region.