All across North and Sub-Saharan Africa, desertification threatens farm land, pastures, townships and even cities, triggering food and water shortages and threatening wildlife. But in a startling twist, it now seems that this ecological phenomena is threatening an iconic movie set, one which science fictions fans should instantly recognize.
Yes, in the deserts of Tunisia, the town of Mos Espa is about to be reclaimed by the desert. This set was first constructed by George Lucas and his crews to act as the skyline for Tatooine in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Serving as the fictional home of Anakin Skywalker, it was here that Qui-Gon Jinn and Padme first met the cloyingly sweet blonde kid that would one day become the most evil man in the universe
And in a new study, lead by Ralph Lorenz of John Hopkins University, researchers have found that sand dunes are swiftly encroaching on the old Star Wars set and threatening to consume it. Since Mos Espa was first constructed in 1997, some sixteen years ago, Lorenz and his researchers have calculated that the sand dunes have moved a total of 130 meters.
Note the satellite images to the left, which display the Mos Espa set in 2004 and 2009 as seen from Google Earth. Between the two, one can see how the large dune wall to the right of the compound is weakened over time, and dust and sand blowing in from the desert is able to make its way into the town proper.
You can also see how the buildings are harder to make out in the 2009 image, a result of them being slowly covered by airborne sand. In time, this will reach the point where the huts are no longer visible, and will likely collapse under the weight of the desert.
The aim of this study, far from inciting Star Wars fandom to mount a campaign, was to track the progress of desertification in the Maghreb nation. One of the benefits of the Mos Espa construction, as far as Lorenz and his geomorphologists were concerned, was that it gave them a steady frame of reference. Since their interest is in understanding how sand dunes move, the Star Wars set gave them a good way to see changes in dune location.
The report outlined the likely consequences of the approaching dunes, and what they would mean for future generations of Tatooine-tourists:
Should the barchan that forms the focus of this paper overrun the Mos Espa set, many buildings will be temporarily buried.
Their rather ﬂimsy construction will mean roofs will likely collapse, degrading the attraction of the site when the dune moves on. This has already been seen at a smaller ﬁlm set (‘Repro Haddada’…sometimes referred to online as the ‘slave quarters’)
…This structure was overrun by a barchan around 2004, and has been substantially demolished, although it is still an object of pilgrimage by Star Wars fans, who also admire the barchans a few hundred meters to the south, which are prominent in several scenes of the movie.
They were also sure to point out that even if Mos Espa survives the swiftly advancing dune, the town is still likely doomed, as other patches of desert are encroaching from other directions as well:
In the long run, Mos Espa is still threatened: the large barchan (big enough to totally submerge the site) looms about 500 m to the east. In fact this dune is often driven over en route to the Mos Espa site, reportedly by ~80% of the visiting vehicles. Although the imminent threatening barchan and other effects may degrade the site on this timescale anyway, at the observed migration rate of ~6 m/yr, this large barchan will begin overrunning the site in about 80 years.
Sad news for fandom and sci-fi geeks. But I guess it just goes to show you, nothing lasts forever. But more importantly, it demonstrates one of the principle issues of Climate Change and the planets rapidly-changing ecology. So perhaps this will have the positive effect of making more people sit up and notice, and maybe even mobilize a few to action.
After Climate Change is an issue that effects, and threatens, us all. And against enemies like world hunger, displacement, drought, famine, and flooding, we need all the help we can get! So at the risk of sounding cliche, let me just say: May the Force be with us!