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Mystery behind hexagonal patterns in world's salt flats has been solved

By T.K. Randall
March 8, 2023 · Comment icon 9 comments

How does this hexagonal pattern form ? Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Pedro Szekely
Scientists have determined what causes a distinctive honeycomb pattern to form on the surface of natural salt pans.
If you have ever set foot on the salt flats of Badwater Basin in California's Death Valley or Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia you will likely have cast your eyes over the surface of the pans and noticed a distinctive hexagonal honeycomb-like pattern set into the crust.

For years, the precise processes responsible for this phenomenon had left scientists scratching their heads, but now a team of physicists believe that they may have finally found the answer.

"The fantastic landscape demands an explanation," said Lucas Goehring of Nottingham Trent University in the UK.
"What we've shown is that a simple, plausible explanation is there, but hidden beneath the ground."

The answer, as it turns out, is all to do with the groundwater that exists beneath the salt crust.

According to the study, layers of salty and less salty water circulate up and down and are squeezed together in such a way so as to form these hexagonal patterns on the surface.

"The surface patterns reflect the slow overturning of salty water within the soil, a phenomenon somewhat like the convection cells that form in a thin layer of simmering water," said Goehring.

Source: Live Science | Comments (9)




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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #1 Posted by pellinore 1 year ago
'The answer, as it turns out, is all to do with the groundwater that exists beneath the salt crust. According to the study, layers of salty and less salty water circulate up and down and are squeezed together in such a way so as to form these hexagonal patterns on the surface. "The surface patterns reflect the slow overturning of salty water within the soil, a phenomenon somewhat like the convection cells that form in a thin layer of simmering water," said Goehring.' That doesn't sound like an explanation to me. It sounds like it's just a deion of what happens.
Comment icon #2 Posted by Waspie_Dwarf 1 year ago
How is a deion of what happens NOT an explanation?
Comment icon #3 Posted by Ell 1 year ago
So simple convection cells?
Comment icon #4 Posted by pellinore 1 year ago
  It's a tautology.  They wondered what 'causes a distinctive honeycomb pattern to form on the surface of natural salt pans'. They answer it with 'layers of salty and less salty water circulate up and down and are squeezed together in such a way so as to form these hexagonal patterns on the surface.' It doesn't explain why the patterns are hexagonal, it just repeats that they are (hexagonal means honeycomb).  It doesn't explain why they aren't irregular cracks or just holes. It doesn't say why they are honeycomb. It just describes them in different words. It's like me saying "I've discover... [More]
Comment icon #5 Posted by flying squid 1 year ago
I agree with you. We can compare this with the case of the Mysterious 'fairy circles' in the Namib desert. For a long time it was mystery what causes these circles in the desert. The scientists only recently confirmed what the cause of the circles is: "Under the strong heat in the Namib, the grasses are permanently transpiring and losing water. Hence, they create soil-moisture vacuums around their roots and water is drawn toward them," https://www.sciencealert.com/the-surreal-mystery-of-namibias-fairy-circles-may-finally-be-solved
Comment icon #6 Posted by Ell 1 year ago
On the cause of the Namibian fairy circles
Comment icon #7 Posted by pellinore 1 year ago
It is not directly comparable with the mysterious 'fairy circles' in the Namib desert. The explanation is an explanation and makes sense like fairy rings of mushrooms: each mushroom deposits seeds which take advantage of the richer nutrients further out. They also say they are not entirely sure. My problem with the honeycomb problem of salt pans is that they say they are caused by natural processes, that lead to that pattern. Well, we knew it wasn't magic. They haven't explained why the natural processes lead to a honeycomb pattern, as apposed to any other pattern or no pattern at all. The h... [More]
Comment icon #8 Posted by csspwns 12 months ago
You have to actually click on the article and read it for a more indepth explanation. Seems like UM-Bot or whoever paraphrased and left out some important aspects.  From the article:    Basically convective self organization is causing the honeycomb pattern and is mainly driven by buoyancy and fluid viscosity due to variable salinity in the water. 
Comment icon #9 Posted by pellinore 12 months ago
  You are absolutely right. Hexagonal patterns are commonly found in spatially extended non-equilibrium systems such as non-Boussinesq Rayleigh–Bénard convection (e.g. [15]), Marangoni convection (e.g. [16]), Turing structures in chemical systems [17], crystal growth (e.g. [18]), and surface waves on vertically vibrated liquid or granular layers (Faraday experiment) [19], [20].  Mean flow in hexagonal convection: stability and nonlinear dynamics - ScienceDirect


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