Crack propagation by differential insolation on desert surface clasts

John E. Moores, Jon D. Pelletier, Peter H. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


In the southwest U.S., cracks in alluvial fan surface clasts have a preferred orientation independent of rock fabric and shape. In this paper, we show that differential insolation of incipient cracks of random orientations predicts a distribution of crack orientations consistent with field observations. In this model, crack growth by hydration and/or thermal weathering is primarily a function of local water content at the crack tip. Crack tips that experience minimal solar insolation maintain a greater average moisture and, hence, weather more rapidly than cracks that experience greater solar insolation. To show this, we used a numerical radiative transfer code to quantify the solar insolation of rectangular cracks at 35° N. latitude with a range of depths and orientations. The amount of solar energy reaching the bottom of each crack was calculated at 5-min intervals over the day for several days of the year to determine hourly, daily, seasonal, and annual energy deposition as a function of crack depth and orientation. By assuming that only crack orientations that effectively shield their interiors and minimize their water loss are able to grow, the pattern of cracks produced by the model is consistent with field observations. The annual average insolation, which controls water retention, is associated with the two primary modes of crack orientation. The effect of daily recharge by summer rains of the North American monsoon system is consistent with the observed deviations from these primary modes. Model results suggest that both the annual average insolation and the daily pattern of rainfall is recorded in the preferred crack orientations of surface clasts in the southwest U.S.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)472-481
Number of pages10
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Dec 15 2008


  • Desert pavement
  • Hydrology
  • Solar insolation
  • Weathering

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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