We fully resolve a long-standing thermal discrepancy concerning the north polar erg of Mars. Several recent studies have shown that the erg’s thermal properties are consistent with normal basaltic sand overlying shallow ground ice or ice-cemented sand. Our findings bolster that conclusion by thoroughly characterizing the thermal behavior of the erg, demonstrating that other likely forms of physical heterogeneity play only a minor role, and obviating the need to invoke exotic materials. Thermal inertia as calculated from orbital temperature observations of the dunes has previously been found to be more consistent with dust-sized materials than with sand. Since theory and laboratory data show that dunes will only form out of sand-sized particles, exotic sand-sized agglomerations of dust have been invoked to explain the low values of thermal inertia. However, the polar dunes exhibit the same darker appearance and color as that of dunes found elsewhere on the planet that have thermal inertia consistent with normal sand-sized basaltic grains, whereas Martian dust deposits are generally lighter and redder. The alternative explanation for the discrepancy as a thermal effect of a shallow ice table is supported by our analysis of observations from the Mars Global Surveyor Thermal Emission Spectrometer and the Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System and by forward modeling of physical heterogeneity. In addition, our results exclude a uniform composition of dark dust-sized materials, and they show that the thermal effects of the dune slopes and bright interdune materials evident in high-resolution images cannot account for the erg’s thermal behavior.