Dunes use turbulence as a buffer to prevent collisions

Enlarge / A red dune racing around an underwater track.Karol A. Bacik

Sand dunes are amazing. They sing, they move, they organize into regular structures—and then those structures can fall apart. Dunes can collide and combine into a single dune, and a single dune can break into multiple dunes. We are all familiar with pictures of dune fields in the desert, but you may not realize that the ripples of sand that are on the ocean floor are also dunes—just on a different scale. To test our understanding of sand dune models, physicists have been playing with underwater sandcastles. The result is that the models are OK but need work.

Building dunes

Dunes are not just a creation of sand; they are the result of a combined effort between free-flowing sand and a fluid (water or air) that moves it about. Understanding these dynamics involves a combination of modeling and measurement.

Yet the modeling is… challenging. A single dune involves too many particles to create a particle model, so researchers have come up with a short cut: they model dunes as autonomous blobs that can careen about the desert. As the dunes move and collide with each other, they exchange mass. Eventually, all the dunes end up with the same mass and move at the same speed, which results in regular structures, like we observe in dune fields and stream beds.

So the model is pretty good, and it's not like it was pulled out of thin air. The characteristics of the model are based on observations. But that doesnt mean its right.

To uncover the dynamics of dune motion, a group of researchers set up a very cool experiment: they created a pair of dunes in a donut-shaped water tank, separated by about a quarter of a turn. Then, they stirred the water violently enough to create a highly turbulent flow and watched what happened.

If the model was correct, the two dunes would end up moving at the same speed. But in order for that to happen, they would have to exchange mass until the two dunes were the same size.

All stirred up

However, that's not what happened. Instead, the downstream dune would happily take off, moving at a huge 16 meters per hour, while the upstream dune would struggle along at a paltry 12 meters per hour. As the downstream dune got further ahead, it slowed down. This would go on until the two dunes were opposite each other, at which point they would end up moving at the same speed. And at that point, it no longer made sense to refer to one as upstream of the other—they were balanced.

At no point in this process do the dunes exchange significant mass. Quite simply, as long as the dunes are above a certain threshold in size, they always end up in a balanced position, though the speed and other details vary.

The key, according to the researchers, is turbulence. The flow generated by the experiment is highly turbulent (as it would be in nature as well), and the shape of the dunes also generates additional turbulence. Video analysis shows that the upstream dune experiences a lot of particle motion driven by turbulence, while the downstream dune seems to sit in its own patch of comparative calm. When the dunes are moving at the same speed, their particle motion is about the same, too.

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