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Institute of Arctic Biology Researcher Featured in "Science"

Submitted by Carla Browning
Phone: (907) 474-7778

01/16/03

Science magazine coverDaniel Mann, a researcher at UAF's Institute for Arctic Biology, was invited by the journal "Science" to comment on recent advances in the study of patterned ground, which includes geomorphic features like sorted circles, nets and polygons that develop in the soils of polar and alpine regions. Although associated with repeated freeze-thaw cycles, the origin of these widespread and often beautiful natural features has been the topic of intense debate for centuries.

Mann's essay, "On Patterned Ground," is a commentary on an article in the same issue of "Science" submitted by Mark Kessler and Brad Werner of the University of California-San Diego. Their article, "Self-Organization of Sorted Patterned Ground," is based on a computer model that simulates the interaction of three different physical processes operating within a field of cyberspace tundra to create sorted polygons and stripes. The three critical processes that Kessler and Werner identify are frost heaving, the upward squeezing of domains of stones heaved out of the soil and the gravitational sorting of stones piled up by heaving.

Together, these simple processes, acting over centuries of simulated time, create intricate, three-dimensional patterns on the ground resembling what you see in Alaskan mountain ranges and on the North Slope.

Mann was invited to comment on the Kessler-Werner article because of his expertise in polar soils, which extends back to the late 1970s when he studied soil development in Spitsbergen, an arctic archipelago north of Norway. Since then Mann has worked on several projects involving patterned ground in northern Alaska, Antarctica, and in mountain ranges in the western U.S. Mann's interest in patterned ground derives from the fact that it is an example of self-organization, the process by which nonliving things assume order and pattern without the intervention of either a creator or natural selection.

"There is nothing in the physics of a shovelful of stony mud that can predict the emergence of an intricate pattern of interlaced, stone-bordered polygons covering many square meters," said Mann. "Self-organization represents a creative force whose existence we barely suspected just a decade ago."

Mann is currently working with Brad Werner on a related project dealing with the self-organization of the Alaskan landscape. Werner is currently on sabbatical and studying at UAF's Geophysical Institute.

Note to Editors: View available photos at http://www.uaf.edu/files/news/download/releasephotos/PatternedGround/

Contact: Carla Browning, UAF Public Information Officer at (907) 474-7778 for high resolution photos or AAAS Office of Public Programs for press materials, at scipak@aaas.org or (202) 326-6440.

Photo cover copyright Science: Raised rings of stones surrounding circular fine-grained domains (circle in foreground, diameter ~2 m) on Kvadehuksletta, western Spitsbergen. These features are only a small subset of the diverse patterns of stones and soil-including labyrinths, stone islands, sorted stripes, and sorted polygon networks-that self-organize in periglacial regions, as discussed on page 380. [Photo: M. A. Kessler]

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