Thousands of tiny ‘ice needles’ may explain mysterious stone patterns on Earth … and Mars

Some of the most breathtaking zen garden patterns on the planet owe their existence to an unlikely artist: thousands of tiny “ice needles.” From swirls to circles to orderly rows, each delicate design is created when similarly-sized stones clump together across a landscape. 

New research published Oct. 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents, for the first time, how ice needles create intricate patterns of stone in various landscapes. As ice needles freeze, they nudge small rocks to one side or another. Over time, the rocks become concentrated in one area, forming a design. The work confirms more than a century’s worth of scientific speculation about the relationship between ice needles and stone patterns, said study coauthor Bernard Hallet, a geologist at the University of Washington. And it might shed light on the origins of an even more mysterious set of patterns — ones found on Mars.

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