Would Humans Survive the Climate on Planet Arrakis from Dune?
Dune has been all over the news, as the first instalment of Frank Herbert’s novel series has been made into a blockbuster film (for the second time), by the acclaimed Denis Villeneuve. Set in the far-off future, this sci-fi epic is based in the desert planet of Arrakis, and is a richly textured world that carries viewers into an interstellar society organized into feudal fiefdoms. The books explore the themes of politics, power, technology and the human relationship with the ecology, amongst others. Now, a group of British scientists have run a climate study and simulation which has concluded that the fictional Arrakis would actually be habitable to human beings.
In the science fiction novels, the temperature of the boiling point on Arrakis is 70°C (or 158°F). It is sparsely populated, has no natural rain or water bodies, and is essentially a desert wasteland. When Dune was written, creator Frank Herbert termed it an “environmental awareness handbook” wherein the title was meant to “echo the sound of doom.” As early as 1965, Herbert recognized the dangerous path down which humans had taken Earth and its many life forms, and Arrakis, inspired by the deserts of Western Asia, was meant to sound the metaphorical bugle.
Climate scientists created an interactive 3D model, see screenshot above, to simulate the climate on the fictional planet Arrakis from Dune. (Climate Archive)
A Climate Study to Understand Dune’s Arrakis
Climate scientists Alex Farnsworth and Sebastian Sterling, from the University of Bristol, and Michael Farnsworth, from the University of Sheffield, reported their findings in The Conversation. “We wanted to know if the physics and environment of such a world would stack up against a real climate model,” they explained.
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“We were very pleased to discover Herbert had envisioned an environment that for the most part meets expectations… we might need to occasionally suspend disbelief, but much of Arrakis itself would indeed be habitable, albeit inhospitable,” they wrote. Their findings and predictions have been published on the website, Climate Archive.
Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in the science fiction film Dune, whose desolate desert climate scenes were shot in Jordan and the UAE. (Warner Bros)
They started with a climate model commonly used to predict weather and climate on Earth, inputting known physical data such as the shape of mountains, strength of the Sun, the makeup of the atmosphere. Arrakis’ data was inputted after extensively studying the Dune novels, and the accompanying voluminous Dune Encyclopaedia, which included the planet’s topography and orbit. For those who are familiar with their science, the shape and length of the orbit is a huge determinant behind seasons and climate.
Finally, Arrakis’ atmospheric data was put into the model, which is similar to the Earth today albeit much less carbon dioxide (Earth: 417 parts per million, versus Arrakis: 350 parts per million, or ppm). The biggest point of difference was ozone, as the Earth’s lower atmosphere only has 0.000001%, compared to 0.5% on Arrakis – a huge gap! They write that, “ozone is important as it is around 65 times more effective at warming the atmosphere than CO₂ over a 20-year period.”
Javier Bardem plays Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen tribe who inhabited the desert planet Arrakis in Dune. The climate study aimed to understand the weather and climate on Arrakis based on information from the fictional novel series to understand if humans would have been able to live there. (Warner Bros)
The Results of Dune’s Arrakis Climate Model
The results of the climate model created based on Arrakis from Dune were extremely interesting. The warmest months in the tropics area hit 45°C (113°F), while the coldest months do not drop below 15°C (59). In the mid-latitudes and polar regions, extreme temperatures do occur, and very much so with hot summers at 70°C, like the book mentions, while the lowest lows are between -45°C (-49°F) and -75°C (-103°F). This anomaly is because the polar regions of Arrakis in the model have higher atmospheric moisture and cloud cover, which act as a greenhouse gas, leading to much faster warming.
While the book does not mention rain, the model suggests sparse rainfall in the higher latitudes in the summer and autumn, in the mountains and plateaus. The rest of Arrakis possesses some cloud cover, in the polar regions and the tropics, which possess no ability to cause rainfall. While the book mentions polar ice caps in the northern hemisphere, the model suggests that the high temperatures would melt the polar ice cap, with no possibility of snowfall to replenish these polar ice caps.
The next logical assumption to make is that human beings on both planets would share the same thermal tolerances to today’s humans, making the tropics the most habitable area contrary to the books, where most people reside in the mid-latitudes. “As there is so little humidity there, survivable wet-bulb temperatures – a measure of 'habitability' that combines temperature and humidity – are never exceeded,” they write about the climate on Dune’s desert planet of Arrakis.
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In the Arrakis climate model, the mid-latitudes show a temperature range of 50°C to 60°C (122°F to 140°F), with maximum temperatures going even higher. These temperatures are not hospitable for human beings. “We decided to keep the same fundamental physical laws that govern weather and climate here on Earth,” highlighted the researchers. “If our model presented something completely strange and exotic, this could suggest those laws were different on Arrakis, or Frank Herbert's fantastical vision of Arrakis was just that, fantasy,” concluded the researchers.
Top image: Desert landscape on planet Arrakis in the film Dune. Source: Warner Bros
By Sahir Pandey