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Repeat, high-resolution imaging of dunes within the Martian north polar erg have shown that these dune slopes are very active, with alcoves forming along the dune brink each Mars year. In some areas, a few hundred cubic metres of downslope sand movement have been observed, sometimes moving the dune brink ‘backwards’. Based on morphological and activity-timing similarities of these north polar features to southern dune gullies, identifying the processes forming these features is likely to have relevance for understanding the general evolution/modification of dune gullies. To determine alcove-formation model constraints, we have surveyed seven dune fields, each over 1–4 Mars winters. Consistent with earlier reports, we found that alcove-formation activity occurs during the autumn–winter seasons, before or while the stable seasonal frost layer is deposited. We propose a new model in which alcove formation occurs during the autumn, and springtime sublimation activity then enhances the feature. Summertime winds blow sand into the new alcoves, erasing small alcoves over a few Mars years. Based on the observed rate of alcove erasure, we estimated the effective aeolian sand transport flux. From this, we proposed that alcove formation may account for 2–20% of the total sand movement within these dune fields.

Supplementary material: A full listing of the HiRISE images used within this study and supplementary images, and analysis descriptions are available at

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