Scientists Investigate Cause of 'Singing Dunes'

December 15, 2009 By Lisa Zyga, feature
Singing sand dune in Altyn-Emel National Park, Almaty Province, Kazakhstan. Image credit: Jonas Satkauskas.

( -- In more than 30 locations around the world, the phenomenon of singing sand dunes has intrigued explorers, tourists, and scientists. When an avalanche occurs or even when the sand is pushed by hand, it emits a powerful, monotonous sound that can last up to several minutes and be heard more than a mile away. Sometimes observers mistake the noise for a loud, low-flying aircraft. Although scientists have spent many years investigating the sound, the cause remains a mystery. Studies have suggested that the singing dunes phenomenon is a completely new way of generating sound.

Previously, researchers have narrowed down the possible causes of the sound source. They found that the wind does not play an important role, since the same sound can be generated by a person moving sand around with their hands, or even in the lab. Also, scientists know that the sound isn’t produced by the entire dune resonating (like a ), but by the motion of the sand grains themselves. However, different research teams have proposed contradictory explanations for the sand grain vibrations, ranging from stop-and-go grain motion to surface that synchronize the grain collisions.

In a recent study, Bruno Andreotti and Lénaďc Bonneau of the Physique et Mécanique des Milieux Hétérogčnes (PMMH) in Paris, France, have further investigated the nature of the acoustic mechanism at the origin of the booming dunes. In their study published in a recent issue of Physical Review Letters, Andreotti and Bonneau have proposed an alternative explanation, in which friction between the layer of moving sand grains and the underlying layer of stationary sand dune creates elastic waves.

When testing their predictions against measurements taken during 50 controlled booming avalanches at Sidi-Aghfinir (Atlantic Sahara, Morocco), the scientists found that the elastic waves can propagate off the underlying static region in all directions. The waves emitted at the rear of the are later reinjected at the front through the sides, creating constructive interference and amplifying the waves. The reflection of an elastic wave on a frictional interface results in energy pumping from shearing motion to coherent acoustic waves, which is the source of the booming sound. As the scientists explain, the principle is similar to the light from a laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). In both cases, a cavity and an amplifier create a spontaneous emission of coherent waves.

“On the fundamental level, we have shown that any wave-guide whose interface presents a solid-like friction is unstable toward the spontaneous emission of vibration,” Andreotti told “Applied to booming dunes, we have, for the first time, written a model based on a clear and well-posed hypothesis. It predicts the amplification of seismic waves by the shear band separating the avalanche from the static part of the , amplification that was directly evidenced in the field. This was a missing ingredient in former attempts to explain the .”

Andreotti added that, until scientists confirm exactly what is causing the dunes to make noise, it’s difficult to say what kinds of applications the research may have.

“One does not know before doing the research if it is important or not: phenomenon like booming dunes can result from the cooperation of different complex specific mechanisms or point to a generic explanation that can be used in other fields,” he said. “Here, the coupling between a mean flow and vibrations may be important in applied fields (for instance, silo are well known to boom during their discharge, a phenomenon directly related to friction-induced seismic wave amplification) or to try to understand other fundamental problems like earthquake triggering.”

Since other researchers in the field have different ideas of how the dunes produce sound, Andreotti and Bonneau are interested to see how other teams will react to their new results.

“The subject is highly controversial,” Andreotti said. “So, we wait for the future works of other groups working in the field: will they confirm our theory and measurements? [Or] will they come up with a different theory?”

Explore further: What determines the size of giant dunes?

More information: B. Andreotti and L. Bonneau. “Booming Dune Instability.” Physical Review Letters 103, 238001 (2009).


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4 / 5 (1) Dec 15, 2009
If ever I have to quote an example of obscure technical conflation, I'll refer to the above description of sound propagation.
not rated yet Dec 15, 2009
I can accept "saser" model, but the question is, why the resulting sound has always the same ~ 100 Hz frequency?
2.5 / 5 (2) Dec 15, 2009
Just a guess:
I believe the sound propagation frequency would be driven by the grain size.The coarser the grain size average the lower the frequency and vice-versa. There is not enough space here to elaborate the idea but basically think on the empty spaces between grains (if the size distribution is too spread there is no sound. However, when the sand was classified by wind (I've studied it) the size distribution is very narrow allowing a lot of empty spaces amongst the grains. So now when they move the grains have a very specific bandwidth (if I am allowed to make this analogy) that is the zone where they are allowed to move and to vibrate consequently. Just a guess as I've said.
1 / 5 (2) Dec 15, 2009
Okay, I haven't heard of this before tonight but since I do believe all science is important then this scientific investigation must be so. I'm just finding it a little difficult to see more practical side of this but I will chock it up to my ignorance on this subject and leave it to the sand sound scientists. :)
not rated yet Dec 15, 2009
I can accept "saser" model, but the question is, why the resulting sound has always the same ~ 100 Hz frequency?

I wasn't aware of that, but if true it might be due to the fact that all "singing dune" avalanches involve similar material (granular dry sand) moving under the same gravitational field, on slopes that have approximately similar steepness.... Just a thought
not rated yet Dec 16, 2009
The squealing of a car tire from coherent release from friction seems very laser-like also.
I think I understand something from the article.
So lasing is like making electrons
not rated yet Dec 16, 2009
So you need a population inversion of sand grains that are at the limit of losing their grip, then they can be triggered to lose their grip spontaneously and regain it, en mass until the energy of the avalanche coming down provides no more energy. That's what I'm getting from the laser analogy.
Dec 16, 2009
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