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Researchers have unraveled mystery behind the peculiar honeycomb pattern discovered in salt deserts

By: April Carson



For decades, the honeycomb patterns found in salt deserts like Badwater Basin in California's Death Valley and Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia have mystified tourists, filmmakers creating science-fiction movies, and scientists alike - all striving to comprehend the source of these iconic shapes.


After years of study, physicists have finally unraveled this natural mystery. It turns out that these honeycomb shapes are the result of a process called desiccation crack formation. This occurs when salt deposits evaporate due to hot temperatures and wind, leaving behind dry mud which then cracks into polygonal shapes due to dehydration.


Lucas Goehring, an associate professor of physics at Nottingham Trent University in England exclaimed that the mesmerizing landscape must have a justification. He went on to say that their research has shown there is indeed a simple and likely explanation hidden deep beneath the earth's surface.


The solution to the mystery of why salt pans have such orderly shapes lies beneath their surface, according to a recently published study in Physical Review X. In this research paper, scientists explained how different layers of salty and non-salty water flow up and down in donut-shaped circles. These currents are then squeezed together horizontally which produces an organized pattern on the ground.


The findings suggest that the shapes of the honeycomb-like structures are determined by the rates of water flow and salt concentration in an area. It also helps explain why some areas have more defined hexagons while others have less shapely patterns.


Recently, researchers postulated that the cracks and ridges structure itself as the salt crust enlarges and dries out, resulting in it flexing and breaking apart due to its immense strength.


The researchers have highlighted that earlier attempts to understand the iconic landscape did not take into consideration of its uniformity, as hexagons are consistently 3-6 feet (1-2 meters) across regardless of where they appear in the world.


The results from the new study confirm an age-old notion that everyday geometric patterns are a result of simple thermodynamics, much like the rolling motion in hot and cold water inside a boiling pot or radiator. "Much like convection cells forming in gently heated layers of liquid," explained Goehring, "the surface designs reflect this gradual back-and-forth movement within soil particles."


The researchers theorize that the hexagonal patterns most likely formed during the drying process of a mud. As the soil desiccates, salt particles cling together as they move due to shrinking and swelling caused by temperature changes. This movement creates dunes that get trapped within adjacent hexagons with similar migration rates, allowing them to stay in place. The result is a mesmerizing honeycomb pattern in the desert.


Don't be deceived by the dryness of salt deserts - beneath their crust lies a layer of briny water which you can access with nothing more than your own hands. During hot summer months, this salty liquid evaporates, leaving just a glimmering coat of salt that dissolves into the next level down. This superior layer is thicker than the below one, and the saline water descends in a circle that surrounds fresher, less solid water rising to fill its place. The evaporating liquid leaves behind an accumulation of salt which reorganizes itself into the top water level again.


The phenomenon of these convection rolls results in an astounding honeycomb-like pattern on the salt desert surface. After much research and study, researchers have been able to unravel the mystery behind this peculiar pattern. They've determined that these formations are caused by the wind blowing over the salty landscape.


This new research suggests that subsurface currents and the salt crust work in unison to form beautiful tessellations on our world's salt deserts. As surface water with higher levels of salinity sinks, it accumulates onto the desert's crust forming ridges around each hexagon – particularly at its edges where there is greater contact with even more concentrated saline water than its center. This is what leads to the formation of honeycomb structures.


Typically, a convection roll looks like a circular donut. But when numerous rolls are clustered on salt flats and squeezed together by the forces of nature, they morph into hexagons as researchers have discovered. The water then rises in the middle, pushing salt from its center and onto the edges of its respective hexagon.


The findings from this research could be incredibly significant for climate change models and projections, as these salt deserts are more sensitive than most other surfaces to changes in temperature and rainfall. By understanding the process which shapes them, we can gain a better understanding of how our environment is responding to the impacts of climate change. This newfound knowledge could prove invaluable in improving our resilience and adaptation efforts, as well as informing better strategies for mitigating its effects.















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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com


To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav


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