Dynamics of salt playa polygons

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Lucas Goehring and Antoine Fourrière, Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, Dynamics of Complex Fluids, Göttingen, Germany
In natural salt playa or in evaporation pools for the salt extraction industry, one can sometimes see surprising regular structures formed by ridges of salt. These ridges connect together to form a self-organized network of polygons one to two meters in diameter, which we call salt polygons. Here we propose a mechanism based on porous media convection of salty water in soil to explain the formation and the scaling of the salt polygons. Surface evaporation causes a steady upward flow of salty water, which can cause precipitation near the surface. A vertical salt gradient then builds up in the porous soil, with heavy salt-saturated water lying over the less salty source water. This can drive convection when a threshold is reached, given by a critical Rayleigh number of about 7. We suggest that the salt polygons are the surface expression of the porous medium convection, with salt crystallizing along the positions of the convective downwellings.

To study this instability directly, we developed a 2D analogue experiment using a Hele-Shaw cell filled with a porous medium saturated with a salt solution and heated from above. We perform a linear stability analysis of this system, and find that it is unstable to convection, with a most unstable wavelength that is set by a balance between salt diffusion and water evaporation. The Rayleigh number in our experiment is controlled by the particle size of our model soil, and the evaporation rate. We obtain results that scale with the observation of natural salt polygons. Using dye, we observe the convective movement of salty water and find downwelling convective plumes underneath the spots where surface salt ridges form, as shown in the attached figure.