Frank Herbert, a science fiction author, is well-known for the intricate worlds he designed. Dune is his most well-known work. It took Herbert six years to complete. Dune, like his other works, is rich in detail. This includes the description of Dune or, as the Fremen call Arrakis.
Dune is a desert world with no rain and powerful dust storms. Experts in climate modeling set out to determine how real Dune was compared to other exoplanets. Their conclusion?
Frank Herbert did an amazing job considering that he created Dune back in the 1960s.
Arrakis, the planet of Dune is crucial. It is the only source of spice melange, a psychoactive substance that allows space navigators guild to travel between stars. It is also used by the intellectual specialists, mentats. They perform complex calculations. Due to the backlash against computers, there are no computers. Mentats replace them. The spice is difficult to harvest due to the harsh dunes conditions. It must be grown otherwise, or the entire interstellar empire will collapse.
Herbert says that Dune is a desert planet where it doesn't rain. It is so hot that anyone venturing out into the Sun should wear a stillsuit. This cools and recycles body moisture.
Scientists wanted to test the authenticity of the Dune. They used current climate models to do this. They published their findings in an article instead of publishing a paper.
To simulate Arrakis, we needed a supercomputer that could do the calculations.
The same way as Earth's extreme environments, a planet can be both habitable or inhospitable. Peoples such as the Bedouin from the deserts of Africa and the Inuit in Canada's far north have adapted to extreme environments. It is not difficult to imagine Fremen adapting to extreme environments like Arrakis. How realistic is Arakis?
The authors started with a climate model that is used on Earth to answer this question. Models are based on physical laws at the base. The physical laws of Earth were used by the team as their base. This suggests that Dune may be a fantasy world. After understanding the physical laws, the team consulted Herbert's six novels as well as the Dune Encyclopedia for detailed descriptions of Arrakis.
They then input data such as the topography of the planets and the height of the mountains and the amount sunlight reaching the surface. They also input Arrakis orbit which is almost circular and very similar to Earths. The orbit can have a significant impact on climate, according to the authors. They write that the orbit shape can have a significant impact on climate. This is evident in Game of Thrones's long and irregular winters.
Arrakis height map in metres Farnsworth et al, Author provided.
After obtaining this data, the authors looked at the atmosphere to see what it was made of. The Dunes atmosphere is very similar to Earths except that it contains CO2. It is 350 ppm, rather than Earths' current 413 ppm. This makes sense since it was written back in the 1960s, when CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere were lower.
Ozone is also different. The upper atmosphere of Earth has the most ozone, while the lower atmosphere is very low. The Earth's atmosphere contains only 0.000001% of ozone while Arrakis has 0.5%. This is because ozone has a greater effect on warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
After the climate model was created, the team waited to see if a powerful computer could run it. Complex models such as these take time, in this instance, it took more than three weeks. To simulate Arrakis, we needed a supercomputer capable of processing the many thousands of calculations.
The researchers also created a visual climate model for Arrakis as part of their findings.
What are the results? According to the team, Arrakis is quite realistic and can be used for most of its life. They write that while we might have to suspend disbelief from time-to-time, much of Arrakis would be habitable, even if inhospitable.
There are many differences between Herberts Dune's modelled Dune and the real thing, especially when it comes cities. Carthag and Arrakeen are closer to the polar regions so the conditions should be more welcoming according to the books. However, the model is not accurate.
The model reached temperatures of 45 Celsius in the tropical tropics. This is quite hot, but not enough to make it a problem. The tropics did not drop below 15 C in the coldest months.
Modelled Arrakis was able to produce extreme conditions in the mid and polar regions. The model showed summer temperatures of 70C. Winter temperatures were -40C in mid-latitudes and -70C respectively. Vostok in Antarctica, 1983 saw a temperature of 89.2C. The highest temperature ever recorded on Earth is 56.7C. It was measured in 1913 at Death Valley, California.
Contrary to what we have seen on Earth, higher temperatures in the polar regions than those in the equatorial areas are counterintuitive. The authors explain that the polar regions of Arrakis have a lot more atmospheric moisture and cloud cover than the equatorial regions. This helps to warm the climate because water vapour, a greenhouse gas, is present in the model.
Herbert imagined a planet without rain, but the model couldn't replicate that. High-altitude areas at the upper latitudes received seasonal rain. However, it was not much.
Herberts Dune also wears polar caps. However, the model was not able to reproduce them. According to the authors, this is the biggest difference. This is the area where the books differ from our model the most. They write that summer temperatures would melt any Polar Ice and winter would not see snowfall to replenish the ice cap.
Is the imaginary Arrakis habitable? But not in the manner that the fictional inhabitants live. Arrakis can be a harsh place to live in, but it is possible.
The authors assumed that Dune's fictional people and Earth's non-fictional human beings had the same tolerance for heat when discussing habitability. The tropics are more habitable than the polar regions in this case. This is where humidity can make a big difference. Humidity makes it more difficult for people to lose heat through sweat evaporation. They explain that there is very little humidity in the area, which makes it possible for humans to survive wet-bulb temperatures.
For something created in the 1960s, the planet Arrakis looks quite real. Image Credit: Chiabella James / Warner Bros
According to the books, the majority of people live in the middle-latitudes. The models show that this is not true. Mid-latitudes often have monthly average temperatures exceeding 50 60C in lowlands. Daily maximums can reach higher than that. This is what the human body cannot withstand.
Herberts Dune is not prone to rainfall or has water bodies. Therefore, a stillsuit that recycles moisture and cools the body is essential. Are stillsuits realistic? These stillsuits seem to be a combination of science and magic. However, we will need to wait to see if another educated analysis is done to verify their reality. The extreme temperatures in Dune are too high and too low for humans to survive without technology protection.
The authors have made it clear that this work was a lot of fun. Frank Herbert made a plausible planet in his own time. This was without the benefit climate science, computers, and exoplanets.
Their last paragraph: It is important to recall that Herbert wrote the Dune novel in 1965. Herbert didn't have supercomputers or any other computer at his disposal. This was just two years after Syukuro, the Nobel-winner, published his seminal first model of climate. The world Herbert created is remarkably consistent 60 years later.
Alex Farnsworth and Michael Farnsworth are the scientists behind this effort. Sebastian Steinig is also involved.