Planetary scientist studying in Coleraine

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When a fly by mission to Pluto produced data indicating that its geology was not what had been expected, Carin Cornwall, a researcher from Arizona, was watching the live feed to Nassau on television and saw the excitement that the mission created.

Carin has carried this excitement and passion into her work all the way to coleraine where she is a Ph.D. student at the University of Ulster researching sand dune migration on Mars.

U.S. satellites have been monitoring sand dunes on Mars, which, until a few years ago, scientists thought was a geologically dead planet.

High resolution imaging data obtained from these satellites has indicated that the dunes on Mars are actually moving.

Researchers are now trying to determine the rate at which this movement occurs.

Sand dunes are among the most widespread aeolian features present on Mars, serving as unique indicators of the interaction between the atmosphere and surface.

Carin explained “Shifting wind patterns over time can be linked to climate change and by studying active and inactive sand dunes on Earth as well as other planets, we can learn more about the geological history of local environments (e.g. the coastal dunes of Northern Ireland), how quickly climate change occurs and the factors that influence climate change”.

Sand dunes are common along the north coast of Ireland but the history and age of the sediments are not yet fully understood.

In the Portstewart and Portrush areas, coastal dune sands occupy approximately 990 hectares; over 700 hectares of these deposits form dune systems on both sides of the River Bann and at Curran Strand.

The earliest phase of dune building pre-dates 5,300 years and little or no new dune formation takes place today.