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Left: Dry river valley in southern Yemen. Credit: NASA Space Shuttle
Right: Chesapeake Bay, Virginia. Credit: Landsat 7.


Mar 24, 2008
Dendritic Channels

These large-scale structures are amazingly similar, yet one is located in the driest desert and the other is an ocean inlet. What could create these features in such disparate environments?

In several past Picture of the Day articles we have discussed features on Mars that should be interpreted as something other than ravines from liquid runoff or as wind-carved canyons. The slopes of Olympus Mons, the gigantic “volcano” that dominates the Northern Hemisphere of Mars, are covered with mountain-high ridges that exhibit a branch-like structure. They appear to flow down the sides of Olympus Mons, sometimes submerged in a thick layer of iron oxide dust. The tendril-shaped, embossed formations are called “dendritic ridges” because of their tree-like structure.

In the image at the top of the page, there is a remarkable duplication of the Olympus Mons dendritic ridges, except in reverse. Rather than being raised above the surrounding terrain like those on Mars, these figures are deeply incised into the strata, hundreds of meters deep in both cases. The Yemeni formation is located in one of the driest regions on Earth, where there is less than a centimeter of precipitation in ten years. Chesapeake Bay is located in one of the wettest regions, where there is almost a meter of precipitation in a year besides being inundated by the Atlantic Ocean.

Chesapeake Bay is thought to be the result of an impact event that took place 35 million years ago, because there is geological evidence for a 90-kilometer crater buried beneath the breccias and sediments near the lower Bay. Its proximity to another strange feature of the Eastern Seaboard, the Carolina Bays, lends credence to the impact theory since the bays are also thought to be the remnants of a “meteor storm” that crashed into the coast long ago.

The multitude of small inlets and side channels that snake their way off the main artery, as well as the lack of a large delta or heavy sedimentation in the bottom of the canyon that makes up the bay bring the impact theory into question, however. The surrounding topography suggests that some other force that can instantly vaporize rocks and organic material, as well as leave melted-looking valleys and dual-ridge faults, may have contributed to Chesapeake Bay’s origin. That force is electricity.

The dry gullies (wadis) and steep cliffs in Yemen appear to be fossils carved by tremendous floods after the last Ice Age. According to conventional theories, as the glaciers melted the runoff from the coastal mountains carved a drainage system. When the ice was gone, the melt waters disappeared and the filigree-shapes remained as a vestige from a wetter era with a more temperate climate. Since the last Ice Age is supposed to have ended 15,000 years ago, the sharpness of the cuts into the stone and the fine detail that can be seen in the thousands of “finger canyons” that branch out in all directions belie a watery birth.

Lichtenberg figures have been highlighted in these pages many times. They are the forking shapes that lightning bolts make when they strike the Earth or some man-made material. Their unique configuration can be seen in acrylic blocks that have been instantly charged with thousands of volts at high amperage, leaving a tracery of the electrical pathway visible in the otherwise transparent plastic. It seems possible that lightning bolts of sufficient power could do the same thing to minerals in the Earth on a continental scale.

Indeed, Martian topography demonstrates “erosion” patterns like those in Yemen. The same multi-branched canyons, steep walls, flat bottoms, sinuous rilles and rims with scallop-shaped cutouts are so much like the ones in Yemen that transplanting Mars to Earth or vise-versa would be undetectable. If Chesapeake Bay were located in an area with no water and no precipitation, it would look very much like its dry cousins on Mars or its arid brother here on Earth.

By Stephen Smith


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David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Steve Smith, Mel Acheson
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Ev Cochrane, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
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