The enigma of relict large sorted stone stripes in the tropical Ethiopian Highlands

Groos AR, Niederhauser J, Wraase L, Haensel F, Nauss T, Akçar N, Veit H (2021)

Publication Type: Journal article

Publication year: 2021


Book Volume: 9

Pages Range: 145-166

Journal Issue: 2

DOI: 10.5194/esurf-9-145-2021


Large forms of sorted patterned ground belong to the most prominent geomorphic features of periglacial and permafrost environments of the mid-latitudes and polar regions, but they were hitherto unknown in the tropics. Here, we report on relict large sorted stone stripes (up to 1000m long, 15m wide, and 2m deep) on the ca. 4000m high central Sanetti Plateau of the tropical Bale Mountains in the southern Ethiopian Highlands. These geomorphic features are enigmatic since forms of patterned ground exceeding several metres are commonly associated with distinct seasonal ground temperatures, oscillating around 0 °C. To systematically investigate present frost phenomena and relict periglacial landforms in the Bale Mountains, we conducted extensive geomorphological mapping. The sorted stone stripes were studied in more detail by applying aerial photogrammetry, ground-penetrating radar measurements, and 36Cl surface exposure dating. In addition, we installed ground temperature data loggers between 3877 and 4377m to analyse present frost occurrence and seasonal ground temperature variations. Superficial nocturnal ground frost was measured at 35-90 d per year, but the ground beneath the upper few centimetres remains unfrozen the entire year. Seasonal frost occurrence would require a mean annual ground temperature depression of about 11 °C, corresponding to an air temperature decrease of about 6-8 °C (relative to today) as inferred from a simple statistical ground temperature model experiment. Our results suggest the formation of the large sorted stone stripes under past periglacial conditions related to lateral and vertical frost sorting in the course of cyclic freezing and thawing of the ground. It is likely that the stone stripes formed either in proximity to a former ice cap on the Sanetti Plateau over the last glacial period due to seasonal frost heave and sorting or they developed over multiple cold phases during the Pleistocene. Although certain aspects of the genesis of the large sorted stone stripes remain unresolved, the presence of these geomorphic features provides independent evidence besides glacial landforms for unprecedented palaeoclimatic and palaeoenvironmental changes in the tropical Bale Mountains during the (Late) Pleistocene.

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Groos, A.R., Niederhauser, J., Wraase, L., Haensel, F., Nauss, T., Akçar, N., & Veit, H. (2021). The enigma of relict large sorted stone stripes in the tropical Ethiopian Highlands. Earth Surface Dynamics, 9(2), 145-166.


Groos, Alexander R., et al. "The enigma of relict large sorted stone stripes in the tropical Ethiopian Highlands." Earth Surface Dynamics 9.2 (2021): 145-166.

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