Science fiction author Frank Herbert is renowned for the richly-detailed worlds he created. None of his work is more well-known than “Dune,” which took him six years to complete. Like his other work, Dune is full of detail, including the description of planet Dune, or as the Fremen call it, Arrakis.

Dune is an unforgiving desert world that suffers powerful dust storms and has no rainfall. Scientists who specialize in modelling climates set out to see how realistic Dune is compared to exoplanets. Their conclusion?

Frank Herbert did a great job, considering he created Dune in the 1960s.

In the world of Dune, the planet Arrakis is critically important. It’s the only known source of the resource called spice melange, a psychoactive drug which when used by the space navigators guild allows them to travel between stars. It’s also used by the mentats, intellectual specialists who perform sophisticated calculations. (There are no computers due to a backlash against thinking machines. Mentats take their place.) Dune’s harsh conditions make the spice difficult to harvest. However, it must be produced otherwise the whole interstellar empire would fall.

Dune is a desert world, where it never rains according to Herbert. The climate is so brutally hot that anyone who ventures out into the Sun must wear a stillsuit—which cools the body and recycles the body’s moisture—or face death.

The trio of scientists wanted to examine the fictional Dune to see how realistic it was. To do that, they relied on current climate models. Rather than publish a paper, they presented their results in an article at The Conversation.

“We needed a huge supercomputer to be able to crunch the hundreds of thousands of calculations required to simulate Arrakis.”

From “Dune: we simulated the desert planet of Arrakis to see if humans could survive there.”

A planet can be both habitable and inhospitable, much like extreme environments here on Earth. The Inuit in Canada’s far north adapted to their extreme environment, and so have peoples like the Bedouin in the deserts in Africa. So the idea of a people like the Fremen adapted to an extreme environment like Arrakis is no stretch. But how realistic is Arakis itself?

To answer that question, the authors began with a climate model used here on Earth. Models rely on physical laws at their base. The team used the physical laws here on Earth as their basis, otherwise, it suggests that Dune is a complete fantasy world. With the physical laws understood, the team then consulted the detailed descriptions of Arrakis in Herbert’s six novels and in the Dune Encyclopedia.

Then they input data like the planet’s topography and height of mountains, and the amount of sunlight reaching the surface. They also input Arrakis’ orbit, which is nearly circular much like Earth’s. The authors make special mention of the orbit, which can severely influence climate. “The shape of an orbit can really impact the climate: see the long and irregular winters in Game of Thrones,” they write.

Height map (in metres) of Arrakis. Farnsworth et al, Author provided.
Height map (in metres) of Arrakis. Farnsworth et al, Author provided.

With that data in place, the authors turned to the atmosphere and what it’s made up of. Dune’s atmosphere is similar to Earth’s, except for CO2. It’s at 350 ppm rather than Earth’s, which is currently around 413 ppm. That kind of makes sense, since it was written in the 1960s when CO2 concentrations were lower in our atmosphere.

The ozone is different, too. Earth’s ozone is in the upper atmosphere with very little in the lower atmosphere. Overall, Earth’s atmosphere is only about 0.000001% ozone, while Arrakis’ atmosphere is about 0.5%. This makes sense since ozone is more effective at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is.

With the climate model populated, the team waited for a powerful computer to run it. “Complex models like this take time to run, in this case, more than three weeks. We needed a huge supercomputer to be able to crunch the hundreds of thousands of calculations required to simulate Arrakis.” 

As part of their results, the trio of researchers produced a visual climate model of Arrakis.

The results? The team says Arrakis is pretty realistic and habitable, for the most part. “We might need to occasionally suspend
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