Characterization and Mapping of Patterned Ground in the Saginaw Lowlands, Michigan: Possible Evidence for Late-Wisconsin Permafrost


David P. Lusch, Kristine E. Stanley, Randall J. Schaetzl, Anthony D. Kendall, Remke L. van Dam, Asger Nielsen, Bradley E. Blumer, Trevor C Hobbs, Jennifer L.F. Holmstadt, and Chris L. May


We identified, mapped, and characterized a widespread area (>1,020 km2) of patterned ground in the Saginaw Lowlands of Michigan, a wet, flat plain composed of waterlain tills, lacustrine deposits, or both. The polygonal patterned ground is interpreted as a possible relict permafrost feature, formed in the Late Wisconsin when this area was proximal to the Laurentide ice sheet. Cold-air drainage off the ice sheet might have pooled in the Saginaw Lowlands, which sloped toward the ice margin, possibly creating widespread but short-lived permafrost on this glacial lake plain. The majority of the polygons occur between the Glacial Lake Warren strandline (∼14.8 cal. ka) and the shoreline of Glacial Lake Elkton (∼14.3 cal. ka), providing a relative age bracket for the patterned ground. Most of the polygons formed in dense, wet, silt loam soils on flat-lying sites and take the form of reticulate nets with polygon long axes of 150 to 160 m and short axes of 60 to 90 m. Interpolygon swales, often shown as dark curvilinears on aerial photographs, are typically slightly lower than are the polygon centers they bound. Some portions of these interpolygon swales are infilled with gravel-free, sandy loam sediments. The subtle morphology and sedimentological characteristics of the patterned ground in the Saginaw Lowlands suggest that thermokarst erosion, rather than ice-wedge replacement, was the dominant geomorphic process associated with the degradation of the Late-Wisconsin permafrost in the study area and, therefore, was primarily responsible for the soil patterns seen there today.