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Uncovering the science of sand dune ‘booms’

Sliding sand creates a mysterious symphony

4:00pm, December 17, 2015
Scientists on dunes
BOOM CREW  Sliding down Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park, Nathalie Vriend and colleagues generate a mini avalanche to record the sound waves.

It starts as a hum, barely audible above the howl of the winds shimmying between sand dunes. Then it builds. Within seconds, the sound resembles a World War II–era prop plane flying low overhead. But there’s nothing there. “It’s very mystical and eerie,” says Nathalie Vriend, a mechanical engineer and geophysicist at the University of Cambridge.

This resounding roar, called a boom, has intrigued desert explorers for centuries. Yet only recently have scientists demystified the source of booms and softer, shorter-lived burps that emanate from deserts’ sandy slopes. Much of the new insight has come from Vriend. Her extremely hands-on research, which includes sliding down towering dunes, has revealed that tumbling sand induces pressure pulses that course above and below the surface to produce a cacophony of peculiar noises.

Vriend wasn’t exactly born to be a desert explorer. She grew up in a Dutch village with a climate closer to

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