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Sand Dunes in Lab

Would physicists prefer their artificial-lighted labs to a study trip under the sun of the Marocan desert? Is it because these “lab rats” fear for sunburns that they decided to study sand dunes at home and not in the desert, as their colleagues always did? Why would they want to do that?

W ell, simply to prove it is possible to do it. And also to open new and more efficient ways to investigate sand du- nes formation, evolution and deplacement mechanisms.

Indeed, many field observations have already been carried out. They brought some knowledge about sand dunes, but it re - mains limited by the difficulty of field investigation. And anyway, even with getting better at experimental camps, it seems physi - cists will never be able to learn as much as they need if they do not find another way to study sand dunes. They need a full de - termination of the different parameters and they like to play with them to better understand how sand dunes form and move.

To understand the recent performance of the couple of innova - tive French physicist in charge of creating these sand dunes in labs, let us first explain why physicists need to understand sand dunes. First of all, these “piles of sand” are related to economic, ecological and social issues. As they move quite fas (from 1 me - ter a year for the biggest and heaviest barkans to 100 meters a year for the lightest), they often invade and damage the rare plan - tation areas, the railways, and even worse, the villages. Moreo - ver, the studyingsand piles allows understanding better granu - lar materials physics, fluid mechanic, and avalanche mechanisms

Barkans of Gypse, New Mexico, United-States Barkan performed in lab (view from the top)

Barkans of Gypse, New Mexico, United-States

Barkans of Gypse, New Mexico, United-States Barkan performed in lab (view from the top)

Barkan performed in lab (view from the top)

United-States Barkan performed in lab (view from the top) Different types of dunes: (e) is the

Different types of dunes: (e) is the brakan one

the top) Different types of dunes: (e) is the brakan one Saltation and reptation movements For

Saltation and reptation movements

(e) is the brakan one Saltation and reptation movements For this lab experiment, the scientists decided

For this lab experiment, the scientists decided to start with the simplest dune shape which exists in nature, the crescentic one, also called barkan. The - re exists other types of sand dunes with different and more complicated shapes, but since it is a first time experiment, physicist told themselves “Let’s start easy first!”. The barkans are formed under specific conditions: the wind has to be constantly intense and always blowing in the same direction.

When the wind is strong enough, it picks up grains on the surface and pushes them forward. The ligh - ter they are, the further they fly. For dunes forma

tion, the grains are considered quite heavy, it just means they have to be heavy enough for the ac - tion of their own weight to compensate their flight at one point, so that they don’t go too far. This movement of the grain is called saltation and the length they fly before coming back to the ground

is the saltation length. There is a second phenome -

num which contributes to form sand dunes, which is called the reptetion. When the saltated grains go back to the earth, they give off their energy to the grains they collide on the floor. These colli -

ded grains are given energy and fly forward for

a bit and induce again a chain reaction. Saltation and Reptetion contribute to form sand dunes.

T aking into account of all the existingscientificknowled - ge about barkans, the Olivier Dauchot’s
T aking into account of all the
existingscientificknowled -
ge about barkans, the Olivier
Dauchot’s research team went
for doing its own barkans, al -
though barkans are believed by
most scientists to have a mi -
nimal size of one meter high
and consequentely to not be
reductible to smaller lab scales.
Experimental setup.
T he speed of the wind and
the amount of sand injec -
ted are two parameters which
need to be well tuned. On the
one hand, the speed of the wind
must be slow enough for the
grains which lay on the floor of
the box to be given a momen -
tum to jump forward, but not
too far. On the other hand the
speed the wind has to be fast
enough for every grain which
moves forward to, once it co -
mes back to the surface under
its own weight, to impact other
grains sufficiently to induce
the movement of more than
one grain. The speed which
was used successfully for
this experiment was set to be
between 20cm/s and 25cm/s.
The minimum amount of sand
for the sand dune to be able to
form was found to be between
a volume of 20 and 30 cm3.
Different steps of the
brakan formation. The
wind is blowing from the
upper left corner of every
(a) initial sand pile
(b), (c), (d) the sand dune
is barkan shaped but it
erodes fastly with time as
it looses sand at the arms
of the crescent
This graph shows the
flattening of the initial
sand pile to a barkan
shape. It represents the
summit height fonction
of horizontal location.
One can observe the
erosion of the sand pile.
Every curve represent the
sand profile every two
It was shown in this experi -
ment that it is actually possible
to create sand dunes to smaller
scale, even when made of the
same sand grains than the big
-ger sand dunes. The dunes appear to have the typical shape of the
crecentic ones. However they erode faster than in nature. This is pro -
bably due to the fact that there is a bigger sand loss in the experiment
than in nature. It could be because of a too narrow range of different
saltationning grains directions distribution. Thanks to this experiment,
a function for the profile evolution of a brakan has been found out ex -
perimentally, and it fits with previous on-fields experimental datas,
and agrees with theoretical models. This means that physicist tend to
be able to predict sand dunes movements and shape evolutions by cal-
culation. However, some new ways to sand dunes physics were today
opened, it will probably gives birth to a lot more advances in the field.

Gilles Grenot, M1CST