Several previous investigators have recognized giant polygonal fissure patterns in 6 playas of the Basin and Range Physiographic Province (Great Basin). This paper extends the study to 39 playas in Oregon, Nevada, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, with observations on the physical and mineralogical features of fissured and nonfissured areas.
Fissures are often 5 m deep and the polygons may attain a width of 300 m. These giant mud cracks develop in clay playas and are attributed to desiccation phenomena. As dehydration proceeds from the surface downward and penetrates the capillary fringe above the water table, shrinkage occurs, which ultimately results in rupture at depth that extends upward to the surface.
The mineral constituents of sediments in both the fissured and nonfissured areas are predominantly clay minerals, carbonates, salines, and analcite, with fine grains of quartz, feldspar, and ferro-magnesian silicates. Fissured playas possess significantly greater quantities of clay and carbonate minerals as compared to nonfissured playas. The clay minerals, carbonates, and analcite are primarily present in <2μ size fraction. This colloidal aggregate is believed to exert a major influence on the physical behavior of the sediments which contain the giant polygons. In particular, the dehydration to an almost dry condition of a clay mass, in which the water content may exceed the mineral content, results in a major loss of volume. The shrinkage leads to rupture with the formation of fissures. The fissures form orthogonal polygons characteristic of volume change in a largely uniform horizontal mass with one surface exposed.