In sandy deserts, winds can build a vast network of dunes whose shapes depend on the winds that built them. This photograph, taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, shows part of a Saharan dune field known as the Grand Erg Oriental. Of the five basic types of sand dunes, this field features all but one. The predominant winds of the region build most of the dunes into long, straight chains separated by interdune flats some 150 meters lower in elevation. Within the chains, there are linear dunes, created by winds blowing nearly parallel to the dune’s long axis. In places where winds tend to change directions, several linear dunes may merge to form star dunes, like the one just below and right of center in the image. Transverse dunes form perpendicular to the predominant wind direction. The one shown in the upper left of this image may have formed when multiple crescant-shaped barchan dunes merged. (Image credit: NASA, via NASA Earth Observatory)
Recurring slope lineae (RSL) are seasonal features on Mars that leave behind gullies similar to those left by running water on Earth. Their discovery a few years ago has prompted many experiments at Martian conditions to determine how these features form. At Martian surface pressures and temperatures, it’s not unusual for water to boil. And that boiling, as some experiments have shown, introduces opportunities for new transport mechanisms.
Researchers found that water in “warm” (T = 288 K) sand boils vigorously, ejecting sand particles and creating larger pellets of saturated sand. Water continues boiling out of the pellets once they form, creating a layer of vapor that helps levitate them as they flow downslope. The effect is similar to the Leidenfrost effect with drops of water sliding on a hot skillet; there’s little friction between the pellet and the surface, allowing it to travel farther.
The mechanism is quite efficient in experiments under Earth gravity and would be even more so under Mars’ lower gravity. It also requires less water than alternative explanations. The pellets that form are too small to be seen by the satellites we have imaging Mars, but the tracks they leave behind are similar to the RSL seen above. (Image credit: NASA; research credit: J. Raack et al., 1, 2; via R. Anderson; submitted by jpshoer)
Moguls are bump-like snow mounds featured in freestyle skiing competitions and also frequently found on recreational ski courses. Although competition runs are man-made, most mogul fields form naturally on their own. As skiiers and snowboarders carve S-shaped paths down the slope, their skis and snowboards remove snow during sharp turns and deposit it further downhill. Over a surprisingly short amount of time, these random, uncoordinated actions form bumps large enough that they force skiers and snowboarders to begin turning on the downhill side of the bump. That action continues to carve out snow on the uphill side and deposit it downhill, effectively causing the downhill bumps to migrate uphill, as seen in the timelapse animation below. As more moguls form, their motion organizes them into a checkerboard-pattern that moves in lockstep. Observations show that mogul fields can move about 10 meters uphill over the course of a season. Seemingly, the only way to prevent mogul formation on steep slopes is to regularly groom them back to a flat state! (Image credits: J. Gruber/USA Today; J. Huet; D. Bahr; research credit: D. Bahr et al.)
inside confined spaces can be tough to predict but is key to many geological and industrial processes. Here researchers examine a mixture of glass beads and water-glycerol trapped between two slightly tilted plates. As liquid is drained from the bottom of the cell, air intrudes. Loose grains pile up along the meniscus and get slowly bulldozed as the air continues forcing its way in. The result is a labyrinthine maze formed by air fingers of a characteristic width. The final pattern depends on a competition between hydrostatic pressure and the frictional forces between grains. Despite the visual similarity to phenomena like the Saffman-Taylor instability, the authors found that viscosity does not play a major role. For more, check out the video abstract here. (Image and research credit: J. Erikson et al., source)
A river’s flow constantly changes its underlying bed. The rocks and particulates beneath a flowing river can typically be divided into two zones: an upper layer called the bed-load zone where the flow moves particles with it and a lower layer where particles are mostly trapped but may creep over long periods. In gravelly river-beds this upper bed-load zone tends to accumulate more large particles, a phenomenon known as armoring. Experiments show that, in this region, large particles have a net vertical velocity moving upward, while smaller particles tend to move downward. Exactly why large particles are more prevalent in the bed-load zone in unknown; several theories have been offered. One suggests that the size segregation is similar to the Brazil nut effect and that smaller particles have a tendency to fall into gaps and sink more easily than larger ones. (Image and research credit: B. Ferdowsi et al., source)
Previously, we featured some GIFs of bubbling, fluidized sand (below). Inspired by the same video, Dianna from Physics Girl decided to build her own set-up, discovering along the way that it’s a little tougher than you might think. To work well, you’ll need very fine, dry particles and a good way to uniformly distribute the air so it doesn’t simply bubble up in one spot. And if you accidentally apply too much air pressure, you may get a face full of sand. The final results are very fun, though, and hopefully Dianna’s lessons learned will help any other DIYers interested in trying this experiment at home. For a little more on the physics here and in related topics, check out some of our previous posts on fluidization, soil liquefaction, quicksand, and dam failures. (Video credit: Physics Girl; image credit: R. Cheng, source)
In a recent video, Practical Engineering tackles an important and often-overlooked challenge in civil engineering: dam failure. At its simplest, a levee or dam is a wall built to hold back water, and the higher that water is, the greater the pressure at its base. That pressure can drive water to seep between the grains of soil beneath the dam. As you can see in the demo below, seeping water can take a curving path through the soil beneath a dam in order to get to the other side. When too much water makes it into the soil, it pushes grains apart and makes them slip easily; this is known as liquefaction. As the name suggests, the sediment begins behaving like a fluid, quickly leading to a complete failure of the dam as its foundation flows away. With older infrastructure and increased flooding from extreme weather events, this is a serious problem facing many communities. (Video and image credit: Practical Engineering)
Pumping air through a bed of sand can make the grains behave just like a liquid. This process is called fluidization. Air introduced at the bottom of the bed forces its way upward through the sand grains. With a high flow rate, the space between sand grains gets larger, eventually reaching a point where the aerodynamic forces on a grain of sand equal gravitational forces. At this point the sand grains are essentially suspended in the air flow and behave like a fluid themselves. Light, buoyant objects – like the red ball above – can float in the fluidized sand; heavier, denser objects will sink. Fluidization has many useful properties – like good mixing and large surface contact between solid and fluid phases – that make it popular in industrial applications. For a similar (but potentially less playful) process, check out soil liquefaction. (Image credits: R. Cheng, source; via Gizmodo; submitted by Justin)
When we watch sands running through an hourglass, we think their flow rate is constant. In other words, the same number of grains falls through the neck at the beginning and the end. In many practical granular flows, like those through industrial hoppers (left), this is not the case. Instead, emptying those containers involves a surge near the end where the discharge rate is higher.
The surge is related to the interstitial fluid – the air, water, or other fluid in the space between the grains. On the right, you see an experiment in which brown grains submerged in green-dyed water are emptied. The dark layer is dyed water initially at the top of the grains. As the container drains, that dyed layer moves down more rapidly than the grains; this indicates that the interstitial fluid is actually being pumped by the draining of the grains. Researchers think this is an important factor affecting the final surge. (Image credits: hopper – T. Cizauskas; discharge graph – J. Koivisto and D. Durian, source; research credit: J. Koivisto and D. Durian; submitted by Marc A)