Dune 2 Much

While giant "star dunes" have been observed all over the world, their age and origin have remained something of a mystery — but now, new findings could shed light on these magnificent desert structures.

In an interview with The Guardian, Earth scientist Geoff Duller, one of the researchers behind a new paper about a star dune he and his colleagues studied in the Sahara called Lala Lallia, touted how amazing these slow-moving structures are.

"They are extraordinary things, one of the natural wonders of the world," Duller, who chairs Wales' University of Aberystwyth, told the British newspaper. "From the ground they look like pyramids but from the air you see a peak and radiating off it in three or four directions these arms that make them look like stars."

Created by winds blowing in three different directions, the structures are extraordinary for a whole 'nother reason as well: they appear to move about 19 inches per year, adding to their mystery.

Sand Altman

As noted in a press release from Wales' Aberystwyth University about the research, which was just published in the journal Scientific Advances, star dunes like Lala Lallia have been observed in deserts all over the world and elsewhere in our Solar System, but have rarely been found on Earth's rocky geological record. It now appears that part of the reason why they haven't been found written in stone is because, as it turns out, they're pretty young.

"These findings will probably surprise a lot of people as we can see how quickly this enormous dune formed," Duller explained.

"Quickly," however, is a relative term.

As the geographer and his colleagues at the University College London found using a bespoke sand luminescence dating technique, the oldest parts of Lala Lallia — which means "highest sacred point" in the Berber language — are some 13,000 years old.

While that seems ancient by human standards, it is indeed fairly recent on the geographic scale, which deals in the hundreds of thousands and millions of years when discussing mountains and other such venerable formations.

What's more, the youngest part of the dune formed within the last thousand years, which is the blink of an eye on a geological time scale.

At more than 200 feet high and nearly 2,300 feet wide, Lala Lallia isn't even the planet's largest sand star. That distinction, as the school's press release notes, belongs to the star dunes of China's Badain Jaran Desert that reach almost 1,000 feet into the sky.

More on deserts: NASA Rover Spots Dead Mars Helicopter in Its "Final Resting Place"

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