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How the ‘Dune’ science-fiction saga parallels the real science of Oregon’s dunes


Timothy Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in "Dune"
Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson star in “Dune,” a movie based on sci-fi author Frank Herbert’s book. The tale draws in part upon Herbert’s experiences in the Pacific Northwest. (Warner Bros. Photo)

The deserts of Abu Dhabi and Jordan play starring roles in the blockbuster sci-fi movie “Dune,” which premieres this week in theaters and on HBO Max — but the origins of the classic tale go back to a different set of dunes on the Oregon coast.

“Dune” creator Frank Herbert spent much of his life in the Pacific Northwest, from his childhood days in Tacoma to his stint as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s education editor. (When I worked at the P-I back in the 1980s, some of my fellow copy editors could still reminisce about Herbert’s habits.)

In 1957, Herbert spent some time researching what he hoped would be a magazine article about a U.S. Department of Agriculture project to stabilize the shifting sand dunes near Florence, Ore., by planting invasive beachgrass. The article was never finished, but according to “Dreamer of Dune,” a biography written by Herbert’s son Brian, the idea of transforming the dunes made a huge impression.

“Dad realized he had something bigger in front of him than a magazine article,” Brian Herbert wrote. “He sat back at his desk and remembered flying over the Oregon dunes in a Cessna. Sand. A desert world. He envisioned the earth without the technology to stop encroaching sand dunes, and extrapolated that idea until an entire planet had become a desert.”

From that initial thread of an idea, the elder Herbert wove six novels, published between 1965 and 1985. Since then, Brian Herbert and  longtime sci-fi collaborator Kevin J. Anderson have written more than a dozen of their own “Dune” sequels and prequels. (The latest was published just last month.)

The newly released movie covers just the first half of the original “Dune” novel. But in subsequent books, Herbert traced how fictional scientists tried to green up the desert planet of Arrakis — and how that brought about unanticipated, even problematic consequences.

Strangely enough, that part of the story parallels what’s now happening amid Oregon’s dunes. It’s a case of life imitating art … imitating life.

“It feels very extreme and sci-fi when you see it in a movie or in a book, but it’s also just like real U.S. government land management,” said Rebecca Mostow, a graduate research assistant at Oregon State University.

Sand vs. grass

Mostow and her faculty adviser, OSU biologist Sally Hacker, have been tracking how the two types of beachgrass planted by the USDA — one that’s native to Europe, and another that’s native to the U.S. East Coast — are taking over the dunes.

“These grasses were introduced to do a job, and they did it really successfully,” she said. “They’ve built these dunes that are central to human communities being able to live out on the coast.”

Problems can arise, however, when the grasses disrupt the sand dune ecosystem in areas that aren’t needed for human habitation — but provide a home for plants like the pink sand verbena and birds like the western snowy plover. If the dunes were to disappear, such species could go extinct. In some cases, the grasses have been so invasive that they’ve had to be pulled out by volunteers, wiped out with herbicides or bulldozed out with heavy machinery.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of huge movement to remove the grasses everywhere, but in areas where we as people don’t need the coastal protection they’re providing, we can think about some level of removal of the grasses,” Mostow said.

And there’s yet another plot twist: Recently, Hacker and Mostow found that the two beachgrass species are cross-breeding amid the dunes to create a hybrid type of grass that tends to grow taller.

“We’re putting in a lot of ‘coulds’ and ‘shoulds,’ but we know that in grasses, height is related to the amount of sand that they catch,” Mostow said. “Taller grasses catch more sand, and so seeing this hybrid grass get taller than the parent species, we predict that it will capture more sand. But there are a lot of other factors that affect the capture, and yeah, we’re digging into it.”

If the hybrid grass turns out to possess enhanced ability to capture sand and build up dunes, that could have “huge, ecosystem-scale consequences,” Hacker said in a recent news release.

“Hybridization could end up resulting in a really invasive taxon or increasing the invasive potential of either parent species,” she said.

Desert planets

Our home world is already becoming more of a desert planet: One study found that the Sahara Desert has grown by about 10 percent over the past century, and according to a 2019 U.N. report, risks from desertification are likely to increase in the decades ahead due to climate change.

What about other worlds? In our own solar system, chilly and dry Mars is the closest thing to the planet portrayed in “Dune.” And indeed, Frank Herbert initially considered using the Red Planet as the setting for his first novel — but decided against it. “Readers would have too many preconceived ideas about that planet, due to the number of stories that had been written about it,” Brian Herbert explained.

Tweaking Mars’ climate to make it more hospitable to humans is a time-honored plotline in sci-fi books and movies — and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has suggested that blasting the Martian poles with thousands of nuclear missiles could do the trick. (That’s a terraforming strategy you won’t read about in the “Dune” novels.)

Siegfried Eggl, a planetary scientist who left the University of Washington this summer to take up an assistant professorship at the University of Illinois, said there are probably enough desert planets beyond our solar system to keep the “Dune” sequels coming indefinitely.

Some simulations of the planetary formation process have suggested that the typical rocky planet is likely to be drier than Earth. “It seems more likely that we would have ‘Dune’ planets than Earthlike planets,” Eggl said.

That’s not necessarily bad: Kevin Zahnle, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, has argued that under certain conditions, a planet like Arrakis has a better chance of habitability than a planet like Earth.

By the time humans get to those distant desert planets, will they be wise enough to do the right thing? Those are the sorts of questions that intrigue Mostow as she gets set to see the movie. “I would be excited if there’s any mention of the sort of terraforming, world-building climatology that’s happening,” she said.

She pointed out that in the “Dune” saga, an off-worlder enlists the aid of Arrakis’ native people to cultivate plants and begin reshaping the planet’s ecosystem.

“That’s what we saw here on the Oregon coast,” she said. “There were native people who lived on the coast for generations and generations, and then colonists came in. …. They introduced plants from their homelands, these grasses from Europe and from the East Coast. And so that’s what we see in ‘Dune’ as well, with these plants coming from Terra, or whatever they call Earth.”

Striking the right balance between embracing an existing ecosystem and working to change it is a central issue amid the dunes of Arrakis — and, it turns out, amid the dunes of the Oregon coast as well.

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