Field studies of barchans—crescent-shaped dunes that propagate over solid ground under conditions of unidirectional wind1—have long focused on the investigation of an equilibrium between sand transport by wind and the control of air flow by dune topography2,3,4, which are thought to control dune morphology and kinematics5,6,7. Because of the long timescale involved, however, the underlying dynamic processes responsible for the evolution of dune fields remain poorly understood8. Here we combine data from a three-year field study in the Moroccan Sahara with a model study to show that barchans are fundamentally unstable and do not necessarily behave like stable solitary waves, as suggested previously9,10,11,12. We find that dune collisions and changes in wind direction destabilize the dunes and generate surface waves on the barchans. Because the resulting surface waves propagate at a higher speed than the dunes themselves, they can produce a series of new barchans of elementary size by breaking the horns of large dunes. The creation of these new dunes provides a mechanism for sand loss that prevents dune fields from merging into a single giant dune and therefore plays a fundamental role in the control of size selection and the development of dune patterns.
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We thank H. Bellot and L. Quartier for assistance during field measurements, R. Hoyle, B. Murray and J. Snoeijer for critical reading of the manuscript, and H. Tsoar for the provision of sand roses. This study was supported by an ACI Jeunes Chercheurs.
Reprints and permissions information is available at npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions. The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Elbelrhiti, H., Claudin, P. & Andreotti, B. Field evidence for surface-wave-induced instability of sand dunes. Nature 437, 720–723 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04058
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