Honeycomb weathering occurs throughout the world, but the origin remains a matter of controversy. Wind erosion, exfoliation, frost shattering, and salt weathering have been proposed as explanations, although few attempts have been made to substantiate these hypotheses with chemical or mineralogical studies.
Chemical analyses and field observations indicate that honeycomb weathering in coastal exposures of arkosic sandstone near Bellingham, Washington, results from evaporation of salt water deposited by wave splash. Microscopic examination of weathered surfaces show that erosion results from disaggregation of mineral grains rather than from chemical decomposition. Thin walls separating adjacent cavities seem to be due to protective effects of organic coatings produced by microscopic algae inhabiting the rock surface. Cavity walls are not reinforced by precipitation of elements released by weathering, as has often been suggested at other locations. Honeycomb weathering develops rapidly and can be observed on surfaces that were planar less than a century ago.