Remote sensing and spatial analysis of aeolian sand dunes: A review and outlook

Chris H. Hugenholtz*, Noam Levin, Thomas E. Barchyn, Matthew C. Baddock

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

161 Scopus citations


For more than four decades remote sensing images have been used to document and understand the evolution of aeolian sand dunes. Early studies focused on mapping and classifying dunes. Recent advances in sensor technology and software have allowed investigators to move towards quantitative investigation of dune form evolution and pattern development. These advances have taken place alongside progress in numerical models, which are capable of simulating the multitude of dune patterns observed in nature. The potential to integrate remote sensing (RS), spatial analysis (SA), and modeling to predict the future changes of real-world dune systems is steadily becoming a reality. Here we present a comprehensive review of significant recent advances involving RS and SA. Our objective is to demonstrate the capacity of these technologies to provide new insight on three important research domains: (1) dune activity, (2) dune patterns and hierarchies, and (3) extra-terrestrial dunes. We outline how several recent advances have capitalized on the improved spatial and spectral resolution of RS data, the availability of topographic data, and new SA methods and software. We also discuss some of the key research challenges and opportunities in the application of RS and SA dune field, including: the integration of RS data with field-based measurements of vegetation cover, structure, and aeolian transport rate in order to develop predictive models of dune field activity; expanding the observational evidence of dune form evolution at temporal and spatial scales that can be used to validate and refine simulation models; the development and application of objective and reproducible SA methods for characterizing dune field pattern; and, expanding efforts to quantify three-dimensional topographic changes of dune fields in order to develop improved understanding of spatio-temporal patterns of erosion and deposition. Overall, our review indicates a progressive evolution in the way sand dunes are studied: whereas traditional field studies of airflow and sand transport can clarify event-based process-form interactions, investigators are realizing a synoptic perspective is required to address the response of dune systems to major forcings. The integration and evolution of the technologies discussed in this review are likely to form a foundation for future advances in aeolian study.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)319-334
Number of pages16
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Mar 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Some of the material presented in this review is the result of research funded by the Alberta Innovates , and the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada . We greatly appreciate constructive comments from Ryan Ewing and one anonymous reviewer.


  • Dune activity
  • Dune pattern
  • Extra-terrestrial dunes
  • Remote sensing
  • Spatial analysis


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