Ph.D Opportunity: Mars Dunes

PhD Project title: Aeolian dune field dynamics on Mars

Closing date for online applications  26 February 2016

This student will be based at the University of Ulster. S/he will be jointly supervised by Professors at the University of Ulster and Trinity College Dublin.


Professor Derek Jackson (University of Ulster)

Dr. Mary Bourke (Trinity College Dublin)
Professor Andrew Cooper (University of Ulster)

Active aeolian sediment transport has been confirmed on Mars but many of the dunefields we see have an inherited landscape evolution possibly stretching back 5 Ga years. Current thinking into how dunefields have evolved on Mars is constrained by available data and we still do not know the answer to important landscape questions such as how dunes evolved in particular locations and how they may have migrated in certain directions at various timescales and by different forcing events/regimes.

Computational Fluid Dynamic modelling of airflow over dune ridges inside Proctor crater, Mars. Image shows variations in streamlines of vortices shedding off the crestal ridge.

Dunes on Mars have been used to infer directional components of regional wind regimes operating within and over dunefields. These studies generally assume dune orientation as being representative of modern wind patterns operating today. However topography may be an important
control on the location, and relative activity of dunefields.This is particularly so in  the southern hemisphere of Mars where dunefields are sourced from sediments locally in craters and are currently positioned inside those same craters.

If we are to use dunes as proxy wind vanes for atmospheric insights, we must first understand the setting of the dunefields themselves. For example, we need to understand the influence of topography to assess if this has been a major factor in controlling the evolution of the dunefields.
Other factors such as sediment source and supply are still very much environmental conundrums that we need to resolve fully.
HiRISE image data enables generation of 3-D Digital Terrain Surfaces at these dunefield locations and their surrounding areas. These data can be used to simulate detailed patterns of 3-D wind flow behaviour to help understand the limitation of the accommodation space’s topography to house dune landforms under particular wind conditions. Modelling of airflow also enables multiple magnitude and direction scenarios to be studied at various locations on Mars with latitudinal and associated climatic variations.
This project will investigate the influence of the topography of the accommodation space on enhancing or limiting the sediment storage regime of martian dunefields across a range of terrain types. Including Craters, troughs, chasma and open plains.
Particular morphologies such as transverse ridges, barchanoid and dome dunes will be examined and compared with Earth analogues. This project will relate to a larger NASA-funded project led by co-supervisor Dr Bourke (TCD).


Remote sensing analysis will play a primary role in the initial analysis of image data from the HiRISE. Geospatial analysis will form the majority of the early stages of the project with subsequent generation of 3D surfaces using photogrammetry. This will lead to surface landform generation over which airflow models will be run. Airflow models at the landform scale will be developed using OpenFOAM CFD modelling software running on the parallel computing facilities at the Ulster University.

Skills required:

The project will be suitable for a student with a Geology, Geography, Earth or Atmospheric Sciences degree. Useful skills should include field mapping, geomorphology, landform and geological interpretation. Knowledge of atmospheric systems would be useful but not essential. An MSc in Geology–related topic would be advantageous.

Project details are at:

How to apply:

Funding sources:


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