National Park Service

Chihuahuan Desert Network (CHDN)

CHDN dune dynamics icon symbol

Dune Dynamics Monitoring

Gypsum dunes as White Sands National Monument
Gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument.

Inventory Reports

Monitoring Reports

Protocol Documents

Vital Signs Included in Protocol

  • Dune Formation and Stability
  • Dune Morphology


Project Contacts

Hildy Reiser, Science Advisor
Chihuahuan Desert Network

Project Cooperators

Department of Geology, University of Texas - Austin


The three largest gypsum dune fields in the world are all located in the Chihuahuan Desert. White Sands National Monument protects a portion of the largest dune field, the second largest field is located in Cuatro Cienegas in the Mexican state of Coahuila, and the third largest is encompassed by Guadalupe Mountain National Park. Gypsum dissolves in water. Thus, it is unusual for it to be found in the form of sand. These dune fields are located in closed basins—meaning water doesn't flow out of the basin. Water sinks into the ground or forms shallow pools which dry out under the desert sun, leaving behind gypsum crystals, which break down into sand when exposed to weather. Strong prevailing winds push the sand into dunes that constantly change shape as they move downwind. Dunes are stabilized by the presence of vegetation and water. The water table in the dune field is shallow, and the dunes wick water up from the beneath the ground, stabilizing the dunes.

Monitoring dune dynamics is paramount to understanding this inherently mobile landscape. The baseline data collection has demonstrated that repeated LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) surveys represent an effective means of monitoring topographic change. This assessment will also clarify potential cause and effect relationships between dune activity, vegetation and the shallow water table.

Monitoring Objectives

  1. What are the migration rates of the sand dunes?
  2. Do the rates of dune migration change spatially over the dune field?
  3. Are the dune migration rates changing over time?
  4. Are dunes changing in size and shape over time and through space?
  5. Is the overall size of the dune field expanding, contracting or staying the same?


  • Dune size: maximum and average dune height, surface area, volume
  • Spacing between dunes
  • Dune migration rates, changes in dune morphology, and spatial variations in dune activity across the dune field
  • Dune field area

Management Applications

Information on the movement of dunes can assist White Sands National Monument steward their dynamic landscape. Monitoring of dune dynamics will be conducted in concert with vegetation and groundwater monitoring. Knowledge of the relationship between these elements may assist park managers in understanding possible impacts of large-scale groundwater withdrawal projects in the region and changing climate on the integrity of the dune field. Because the dune field lies in an area once occupied by ancient lakes, the LiDAR sampling may help determine erosion rates for paleontologically-rich shoreline deposits and locate and monitor unique archaeological gypsum hearth mounds.

Protocol Status

This protocol has undergone formal peer-review, and should be approved and published in 2013. Dune Dynamics baseline data collection was conducted in 2007 and 2008. Additional LiDAR surveys were conducted between 2009 and 2010. The next set of LiDAR surveys will be collected in 2015 and 2016.

Status and Trends

Status information is provided in the baseline final report. (Kocurek, G., D. Mohrig, E. Baitis, R. C. Ewing, V. Smith, and A. Peyret. 2012. LiDAR Surveys of Gypsum Dune Fields in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico. Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/CHDN/NRTR–2012/558. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado) Insufficient data have been collected for trend determination.

⇑ To Top of Page

Last Updated: February 13, 2014 Contact Webmaster