Dunes, the mounds of sand formed by the wind that vary from ripples on the beach to towering behemoths in the desert, are incarnations of surface processes, climate change, and the surrounding atmosphere. For decades, scientists have puzzled over why they form different patterns.
Now, Stanford researchers have found a way to interpret the meaning of these patterns. Their results, published in Geology Aug. 1, can be used as a new tool for understanding environmental changes on any planetary body that harbors dunes, including Venus, Earth, Mars, Titan, Io, and Pluto.
“When you look at other planets, all you have is pictures taken from hundreds to thousands of kilometers away from the surface. You can see dunes — but that’s it. You don’t have access to the surface,” said senior study author Mathieu Lapôtre, an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. “These findings offer a really exciting new tool to decipher the environmental history of these other planets where we have no data.”
The scientists analyzed satellite images of 46 dune fields on Earth and Mars and studied how the dunes interact, or exchange sand. Physically, dune interactions manifest themselves as locations where the crestlines of two dunes get very close to each other. Through such interactions, dunes evolve toward a pattern that is free of defects, reflecting a state of equilibrium with local conditions. Thus, the researchers hypothesized that a high number of interactions, in turn, must signal recent or local changes in those boundary conditions. To test their hypothesis, they used data from Earth and Mars to verify how known changes in environmental conditions, such as wind direction or the amount of sand available, affected dune interactions in the dune fields.
Finding a pattern
In a part of China’s Tengger Desert, researchers once flattened a dune field to have a baseline for understanding its subsequent reformation. The study authors…