Mahu Alvarez/New York Times

Arrakis — the central planet in Frank Herbert's Dune series — is a planet covered in desert.

April 23, 2024

The Science Behind Arrakis: Understanding the Climate and Ecosystem of Dune

Print More

The environment on Arrakis — the desert planet central to Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction series Dune — is not entirely fictional, according to Cornell scientists.

Arrakis consists of bone-dry deserts with giant dunes, rocky cliffs and little sign of water. The climate is extreme, with scorching heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night. Despite the harsh conditions, the ecosystem is sustained through a delicate balance between the colossal sandworms and the ever-important economic resource spice — a prescience-inducing drug produced by sandworm life cycles.

Arrakis was not always a desert planet. Introducing alien sandtrouts disrupted Arrakis’ hydrological cycle — the continuous water circulation between land and atmosphere — transforming it into a desert.

Similarly, on Earth, wetlands are converted to deserts through desertification — when processes that move water from ocean to land are restricted.

“For example, clouds bring in moisture to the northern plains in India below the Himalayas,” said Prof. Jed Sparks, ecology and evolutionary biology. “If such air mass transport is stopped that would disrupt the [water cycle] of that region massively.” 

Other cycles besides the water cycle contribute to a balanced ecosystem. According to Sparks, almost all life on earth is possible due to autotrophs — organisms like plants and bacteria that convert carbon dioxide or other simple molecules to nutrients like glucose that store energy. Other life forms can then consume these compounds to fulfill their energy requirements. Autotrophs also often produce oxygen as a byproduct.

On Arrakis, sandplanktons are autotrophic — they feed on the spice and create oxygen. The sandworms eat these sandplanktons and produce more spice, thus completing the cycle. The relationship between sandplanktons, sandworms and spice is similar to ecological cycles on Earth. For example, mole crickets are insects commonly found in Florida that feed on cyanobacteria — a type of autotroph — in the soil.

“[The relationship between mole crickets and cyanobacteria] provides an analogy to spice which also seems to be composed of some kind of nutrients,” Sparks said.

Autotrophs like plants use chlorophyll — a green compound that provides plants their color — to use sunlight to make nutrients. However, since there is no hint of the color green on Arrakis, one may assume that the planet is devoid of chlorophyll. However, special kinds of autotrophs called chemotrophs use energy obtained from the oxidation of inorganic molecules to make nutrients without chlorophyll.

“It’s possible that all [sand]planktons are chemotrophs that rely on the compounds that make up spice which is an abundant resource on the planet,” said Prof. Benjamin Houlton, ecology and evolutionary biology. 

With sandplankton helping to supply oxygen to Arrakis, the ecosystem could sustain other organisms such as the desert mouse — Muad’dib — which resembles the real desert mice on Earth. The desert mouse’s enormous ears — almost half its body size — help with temperature regulation and trap the little moisture in the air. Large ears are common among other desert mammals like the fennec fox found in the Sahara. 

The ultimate goal in the Dune odyssey is to bring back greenery to Arrakis. Herbert’s solution to return greenery to the planet was to break the cycle of hydrological disruption by killing the sandworms to end spice production forever. 

 David Lynch, in his effort to transform Arrakis, made a different ending for his 1984 film Dune. Lynch opted to make Arrakis green by making it magically rain when Atreides killed Fayed Routha. However, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune refrains from spiritual prophecies and can terraform Arrakis through scientifically plausible means. 

“It’s possible that the magical water in the sandworms consists of cloud condensation nuclei,” Houlton said.

Cloud condensation nuclei are small particles that make water vapor condense and thus induce rainfall. So, after the sandworms are killed and their water released, clouds may seed, spurring rainfall and returning Arrakis to greenery. 

Like Arrakis, the Sahara desert in Africa was once a lush jungle before its climate was severely compromised due to drought. So, on Earth,  how does one address regions under eminent drought risk?

According to Carlos Carillo, a research associate in earth and atmospheric sciences, scientists construct climate data over centuries to look for megadroughts — rainless periods that lead to desert formation. Scientists also identify important regions for water storage and circulation.

“The Amazon jungle, for example, transpires and recirculates a large amount of water for the entire world,” Carillo said. “If regions of the forest suffer drought and deforestation continues, many regions in the world will become dry.”

In theory, it is possible to predict droughts. However, actually preventing droughts is very difficult, according to Carillo. Due to technology constraints, steps to reduce stress in areas with drought are limited to cloud seeding, growing crops with less water needs and human immigration.

“If we do want to change the circulation of a global phenomenon that causes drought, it would require an external perturbation like a mechanical turbine that changes airflow,” Carillo said. “But the energy requirements for such a machine certainly could not be fulfilled by our planet alone.”

Since we lack the ability to change global climate phenomena, if large parts of our planet were to indeed become like Arrakis, then we certainly would require a Lisan Al Gaib or a Timothee Chalamet to save us.

Raghav Chaturvedi can be reached at [email protected].