Hill, mound, or ridge of windblown sand or other loose material such as clay particles. Dunes are commonly associated with desert regions and seacoasts, and there are large areas of dunes in nonglacial parts of Antarctica.
Learn more about sand dune with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Some coastal areas have one or more sets of dunes running parallel to the shoreline directly inland from the beach. In most cases the dunes are important in protecting the land against potential ravages by storm waves from the sea. Although the most widely distributed dunes are those associated with coastal regions, the largest complexes of dunes are found inland in dry regions and associated with ancient lake or sea beds.
The modern word "dune" came into English from French circa 1790 but it's an old Indo-European word that's found in most of the Slavic languages as well as the Germanic and Latin languages. In ancient times words cognate to "dune" probably had the meaning of a citadel or built-up hill fortification.
Longitudinal dunes (also called Seif dunes, after the Arabic word for "sword"), elongate parallel to the prevailing wind, possibly caused by a larger dune having its smaller sides blown away. Seif dunes are sharp-crested and are common in the Sahara. They range up to 300 m (900 ft) in height and 300 km (200 mi) in length. In the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, a region called the Empty Quarter because of its total lack of populatation, a vast erg called Rub al Khali conatins seif dunes that stretch for almost 200 km and reach heights of over 300m.
Seif dunes are thought to develop from barchans if a change of wind direction occurs. The new wind direction will lead to the development of a new wing and the over development of one of the original wings. If the prevailing wind then becomes dominant for a lengthy period of time the dune will revert to its barchan form, with one exaggerated wing. Should the strong wind then return the exaggerated wing will further extend so that eventually it will be supplied with sand when the prevailing wind returns. The wing will continue to grow under both wind conditions, thus producing a seif dune. On a seif dune the slip face develops on the side facing away from the strong wind, while the slip face of a barchan faces the direction of movement. In the sheltered troughs between highly developed seif dunes barchans may be formed because the wind is unidirectional.
A transverse dune is perpendicular to the prevailing wind, probably caused by a steady buildup of sand on an already existing minuscule mound.
Occurring wherever winds periodically reverse direction, reversing dunes are varieties of any of the above shapes. These dunes typically have major and minor slipfaces oriented in opposite directions.
All these dune shapes may occur in three forms: simple, compound, and complex. Simple dunes are basic forms with a minimum number of slipfaces that define the geometric type. Compound dunes are large dunes on which smaller dunes of similar type and slipface orientation are superimposed, and complex dunes are combinations of two or more dune types. A crescentic dune with a star dune superimposed on its crest is the most common complex dune. Simple dunes represent a wind regime that has not changed in intensity or direction since the formation of the dune, while compound and complex dunes suggest that the intensity and direction of the wind has changed.
These dunes most often form as a continuous 'train' of dunes, showing remarkable similarity in wavelength and height.
Dunes on the bed of a channel significantly increase flow resistance, their presence and growth playing a major part in river flooding.
A local slang term used for these consolidated dunes is "slickrock", a name that was introduced by pioneers of the old west because their steel-rimmed wagon wheels could not gain purchase on the rock.
Dunes form where constructive waves encourage the accumulation of sand, and where prevailing onshore winds blow this sand inland. There need to be obstacles e.g. vegetation, pebbles etc. to trap the moving sand grains. As the sand grains get trapped they start to accumulate, this is the start of dune formation. The wind then starts to affect the mound of sand by eroding sand particles from the windward side and depositing them on the leeward side. Gradually this action causes the dune to “migrate” inland, as it does so it accumulates more and more sand. Dunes provide privacy and shelter from the wind.
As a dune forms, plant succession occurs. The conditions on an embryo dune are harsh, with salt spray from the sea carried on strong winds. The dune is well drained and often dry, and composed of calcium carbonate from seashells. Rotting seaweed, brought in by storm waves adds nutrients to allow pioneer species to colonize the dune. These pioneer species are marram grass, sea wort grass and other sea grasses in the UK. These plants are well adapted to the harsh conditions of the fore-dune typically having deep roots which reach the water table, root nodules that produce nitrogen compounds, and protected stoma, reducing transpiration. Also, the deep roots bind the sand together, and the dune grows into a fore dune as more sand is blown over the grasses. The grasses add nitrogen to the soil, meaning other, less hardy plants can then colonize the dunes. Typically these are heathers and gorses. These too are adapted to the low soil water content and have small, prickly leaves which reduce transpiration. Heathers add humus to the soil, but have a pH of lower than 7, so make the soil slightly acidic. Heathers are usually replaced by coniferous trees which can tolerate the low pH. Coniferous forests and heathland are common climax communities for sand dune systems.
Young dunes are called yellow dunes, dunes which have high humus content are called grey dunes. Leaching occurs on the dunes, washing humus into the slacks, and the slacks may be much more developed than the exposed tops of the dunes. It is usually in the slacks that more rare species are developed and there is a tendency for the dune slacks soil to be waterlogged and where only marsh plants can survive. These plants would include: creeping willow, cotton grass, yellow ins, reeds, and rushes. As for the species, there is a tendency for natterjack toads to breed here.
One of the biggest problems posed by sand dunes is their encroachment on human habitats. Sand dunes move through a few different means, all of them helped along by wind. One way that dunes can move is through saltation, where sand particles skip along the ground like a rock thrown across a pond might skip across the water's surface. When these skipping particles land, they may knock into other particles and cause them to skip as well. With slightly stronger winds, particles collide in mid-air, causing sheet flows. In a major dust storm, dunes may move tens of meters through such sheet flows. And like snow, sand avalanches, falling down the steep slopes of the dunes that face away from the winds, also moving the dunes forward.
Sand threatens buildings and crops in Africa, the Middle East and China. Drenching sand dunes with oil stops their migration, but this approach is highly destructive to the dunes habitat and uses a finite resource. Sand fences might also work, but researchers are still analyzing optimum fence designs. Preventing sand dunes from overwhelming cities and agricultural areas has become a priority for the United Nations Environment Programme.
|Dune||Height from Base feet/meters||Height from Sea Level feet/meters||Location||Notes|
|Cerro Blanco||?||~6791/2,080||Sechura Desert, Nazca||Highest in the world and in South America|
|Badain Jaran Dunes||~1640/500||~6640/2,020||Badain Jaran Desert, Alashan Plain, Inner Mongolia, Gobi Desert, China||World's tallest stationary dunes and highest in Asia|
|Average Highest Area Dunes||1,526/465?||~6,500/~1,980?||Isaouane-n-Tifernine Sand Sea, Algerian Sahara||Highest in Africa|
|Big Daddy/Dune 7||1,256/383||?||Sossusvlei Dunes, Namib Desert, Namibia / Near Walvis Bay Namib Desert, Namibia|
|Mount Tempest||~920/280||~920/280||Moreton Bay, Brisbane, Australia||Highest in Australia|
|Star Dune||>750/230||~8,950/2,730||Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado, USA||Highest in North America|
|Dune of Pyla||~345/105||~699/130||Bay of Arcachon, Aquitaine, France||Highest in Europe|
|Ming-Sha Dunes||?||5,660/1,725||Dunhuang Oasis, Taklamakan Desert, Gansu, China|
|Medanoso Dune||?||4,921/1,500 or 7,923/2,415?||Atacama Desert, Chile|
Titan's dunes include large expanses with modal lengths of about 20-30 km. The regions are not topographically confined, resembling sand seas. These dunes are interpreted to be longitudinal dunes whose crests are oriented parallel to the dominant wind direction, which generally indicates west-to-east wind flow. The sand is likely composed of hydrocarbon particles, possibly with some water ice mixed in.