Confession: I probably don’t give Silver Lake Dunes State Park enough love. What an incredible place.
In Scientific American Robert S. Anderson, associate professor of earth sciences at the University of California at Santa Cruz explains why regular, wavelike shapes form when the wind blows over the sand on the beach for a long time:
Ripples in sand, found on both beaches and dunes, are one of nature’s most ubiquitous and spectacular examples of self-organization. They do not result from some predetermined pattern in the wind that is somehow impressed on the surface, but rather from the dynamics of individual grains in motion across the surface. They arise whenever wind blows strongly enough over a sand surface to entrain grains into the wind. The subsequent hopping and leaping of these grains is called saltation. Saltating grains travel elongated, asymmetric trajectories: Rising relatively steeply off the bed, their path is then stretched downwind as they are accelerated by drag forces. They impact the sand surface centimeters to tens of centimeters downwind, typically at a low angle, around 10 degrees. It is this beam of wind-accelerated grains impacting the sand surface at a low angle that is responsible for ripples.
“An artificially flattened sand surface will not remain flat for long. (Try it on the beach or on the upwind side of a dune and see for yourself.) Small irregular mottles in the sand surface, perhaps a couple centimeters in wavelength, rapidly arise and grow once the wind starts to blow hard enough to initiate saltation. They then slowly organize themselves into more regular waves whose low crests are aligned perpendicular to the wind direction and begin to march slowly downwind. Typical ripple spacing is about 10 centimeters, whereas the typical height of the crests above the troughs is a few millimeters. The pattern is never perfect, but instead the ripple crests occasionally split or terminate, generating a pattern that looks remarkably like one’s fingerprint.
Read on for a whole lot more including Michigan Sea Grant educator Walt Hoagman explaining how the speed of wind (and water) over sand influences the waves.