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Is Arrakis really the hell planet Dune envisions, and would we need stillsuits?

Scientists wanted to find out what Arrakis would be like for real, so they created a worm-free climate model.

By Elizabeth Rayne
Dune Still

If the vast, sandy expanses of Arrakis don’t give it away as an inhospitable planet, the realization that everyone outside is wearing strange suits with nose plugs should tell you something.

There wasn’t nearly so much knowledge on alien planets (like Mars) as there is now when George Herbert wrote Dune in 1965. The first human boot prints hadn’t even been left on the Moon yet. He must have done extensive research — at least that is what scientists Alex Farnsworth, Michael Farnsworth, and Sebastian Steinig thought as they came up with a climate model that showed exactly how brutal Arrakis would be if the fictional planet actually existed.

The scientists and avid Dune fans wanted to see just how close Herbert had come to what Arrakis would be if it existed as a physical body in space. It seems he had Bene Gesserit foresight. Farnsworth, Farnsworth, and Steinig, who originally published their findings in The Conversation, saw an unforgivingly arid world take shape, where it would be just as freezing in the winters as it was scorching in the summers. And yes, you would definitely need a stillsuit.

“The temperatures are extremely dangerous and prolonged exposure can lead to death without technological means. Importantly, this isn't just because of the extreme heat on Arrakis during the summer,” Alex Farnsworth told SYFY WIRE. “Temperatures would be just as extreme in the winter.”

By extreme winter temperatures, Farnsworth means another Antarctica. Winters on Arrakis don’t appear in the book or Denis Villeneuve's film, but the scientists reasoned that Paul wouldn’t have needed just one stillsuit when moving to Arrakis from Calladan, he would have needed two — the one Herbert invented to keep you cool in the heat while recycling your body’s water, and one that did the same while trapping warmth in the intense cold. Exposing skin to temperatures that low would put you at risk for frostbite and necrosis. By the way, that stillsuit would need a face shield.

Any unprotected skin on Arrakis would be asking for it, so it is kind of unrealistic for the planet’s denizens to be walking around with their faces exposed. Both Herbert’s stillsuit and Farnsworth’s idea of a winter version would need a sort of face shield, because skin would otherwise lose moisture. Never mind the sandstorms. Herbert’s Coriolis storms that brought down ornithopters had the potential to wreck larger spacecraft, but were surprising to Farnsworth and his colleagues because they were in the wrong region for such a phenomenon to happen.

“I was surprised that these massive Coriolis storms that are said to circumnavigate the planet could in some sense be a reality, but only in the Southern Hemisphere, likely because there is less high topography compared to the Northern Hemisphere,” he said.

Herbert really doomed the people of Arrakis by putting Arrakeen and all the major settlements in the planet’s mid-latitudes. Sandstorm winds arose from the planet’s motions as it revolved, accelerating up to about 435 miles per hour. Farnsworth now wants to do further research on these fictional storms and whether they would actually be possible under certain conditions on his simulated Arrakis. At least some protective measures exist. Arrakeen is protected by the Shield Wall, and the Fremen crawled deep in their underground communities, or sietches.

So how would Arrakis compare to Mars? Say that Mars somehow had breathable air, since Herbert suspended disbelief by having the sandworms produce al the oxygen on Arrakis. Nothing really grows on both planets, so both would need to import food or have a system of artificial hydroponics, demonstrated in the book when Jessica receives a cryptic message in a room similar to a greenhouse. Water is scarce on both planets. Mars also kicks up dust storms, though the comparison to the sandstorms on Arrakis is unknown. Since Mars and Arrakis are freezing in the winter, shelter could be the difference between death and survival. How about Tatooine?

“I guess my immediate response would be Arrakis, mainly due to those gigantic worms roaming around listening for the slightest bit of movement,” Farnsworth said. “I was never good at dancing, either, so trying the Fremen technique would probably still get me eaten!”

Dune is now out in theaters now, or you can stream it on HBO Max until Nov. 21.