May the Force Be Nerdy: Star Wars Just Made a Contribution to Science

New geological research got an assist from Google Earth ... and Tatooine.
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January 2008: Sand dunes migrating over the Tunisian desert, toward the Star Wars film set. (Google Earth via BBC)

Just northwest of Tozeur, Tunisia, lays a barren stretch of desert that's home to great swaths of sand and not much else. As the wind whips its way through that sand, it gives rise to large, crescent-shaped structures known as barchans. Barchans are something like movable mountains: they tend to migrate in the same direction as the desert winds, going, literally, where the wind takes them. Which has made them something of an enigma to scientists: How do you measure the movement of sand upon sand upon sand? How do you know how far the barchans are traveling when it's so hard to tell where the mounds end and the ground begins?

Enter George Lucas. Because the land just northwest of Tozeur, Tunisia, it turns out, is also home to the set that served as the backdrop for Mos Espa, the early home of the young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. And the site, according to a collective of scientists who have researched the matter, "now lies between the arms of a large 'pudgy' barchan dune."

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September 2009: Sand dunes migrating over the Tunisian desert, coming even closer to the Star Wars film set. (Google Earth via BBC)
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July 2012: Sand dunes migrating over the Tunisian desert, coming even closer still to the Star Wars film set. (Google Earth via BBC)

So those scientists did what any good scientists would do: they put the set to use. For, you know, scientific purposes. They used the set's buildings -- the fading architecture of Tatooine -- as fixed geographic points. From there, they were able to measure the movement of the dunes with an assist from imagery provided by Google Earth. The team, using Mos Espa as their reference, compared satellite imagery from 2002, 2004, 2008, and 2009, rounding out those images with in-person visits to the site.

And their findings, just published in a paper for the journal Geomorphology? Over the stretch of time they measured, the dunes went from being about 459 feet away from Mos Espa to being, now, only about 33 feet away from the fictional city. The dunes, in other words, seem to move about 50 feet every year -- which makes the barchans of Earth, it seems, about 10 times faster-moving than similar barchans on Mars.

And which also leads, it seems, to a paradox: the deserts of Earth could soon be swallowing the buildings of Tatooine. The place that was home to a fictional Force may soon be devoured by one that is all too real. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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