Last Updated on December 28, 2022
Ever heard of booming sand dunes? Sometimes, in the silence of the desert, the voice of the dunes can be heard.
As the wind blows or as a result of trampling, the dunes “sing”: very distinct sounds can be heard coming from the sand, each unique depending on the size of the grains of sand.
There are different types of dunes, and this rare phenomenon can only occur when certain environmental conditions are met, which is why only some dunes are known as “singing sand dunes”, and can be found in different countries across the world.
What is singing sand?
The phenomenon of “singing sand” (or “booming sand”) has been a subject of interest for centuries. It fascinated Marco Polo during his travels and intrigued Charles Darwin, who mentioned encountering a singing sand dune during in his travel accounts to Chile.
It was not until the late 19th century have scientific observations been made that shed light on the voice of the desert: first, not all dunes sing, but all those that do are composed of dry, compact sand.
And second, the sound is spontaneously generated when sand slides down a dune’s side, usually due to wind activity. In addition, while some dunes have the capacity to emit a sound of up to 110 decibels at a well-defined frequency, others pitch several notes at once – which means, each dune really has its own “voice”.
Why some dunes sing
Most dunes can sing in particular weather and environmental conditions. The largest dunes are more likely to qualify as singing dunes as their surface becomes very hot in the afternoon and thus very dry.
Other dunes (for instance, the 10,000 barchan dunes that compose the Atlantic Sahara desert around Laayoune, Morocco) may sing only if the sun has been able to dry the dune surface, which is more and more difficult to achieve for smaller and smaller dunes.
Finally, some dunes never sing, such as the Pyla dune in France. These are usually not composed of eolian (windblown) sand that is characterized by a narrow particle-size distribution, but by a smooth rounded shape and by an unpolished surface due to the hammering in the collisions.
Infrared spectroscopy has suggested that sound-producing grains could be covered by a characteristic silica-gel layer, formed during cycles of humidification and dry-out. Still, the role of this layer has not been found so far.
Moreover, nobody has succeeded in producing artificial singing sand, starting for instance from industrial glass beads or river sand.
What does singing sand sound like?
In 1298, Marco Polo described the “singing” of a dune as the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments — and more ordinary, drums — filling the air.
This loud sound, which can be heard up to 10 km away, resembles the sound of a foghorn or of a low-flying twin-engined jet.
Where can you find singing dunes?
There are a few selection across the globe where you can observe the phenomenon of booming sand dunes. One of the most famous dunes is Akkum-Kalkan (lit. “singing dune“) located in the the Altyn-Emel National Park near Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Other dunes where this phenomenon can be observed are the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, the Gebel Naqous in Egypt’s Sahara desert, the Khongoryn Els in the Gobi desert of Mongolia, and the Mingha Sand Dunes in China.
List of Singing Sand Dunes worldwide
- Kelso Dunes – California, US
- Eureka Dunes – California, US
- Great Sand Dunes – Colorado, US
- Indiana Dunes – Indiana, US
- Barking Sands – Hawaii, US
- Warren Dunes – Michigan, US
- Ming Sha Shan dunes – Dunhuang, China
- Gebel Naquous – South Sinai, Egypt
- Kotogahama Beach Dunes – Japan
- Sarugamori Sand Dunes – Japan
- Akkum-kalkan (Singing Dune) – Almaty, Kazakhstan
- Khongoryn Els – Gobi Desert, Mongolia
- Porth Oer (Whistling Sands) – Aberdaron, Wales
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