Abu Dhabi Fossil Dunes: a frozen landscape created by climate change

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Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi (CNN) — Drive about an hour southeast of Abu Dhabi city towards the empty deserts of the emirate and you will find yourself in a landscape full of unexpected man-made creations.

The region of Al Wathba is home to a beautiful oasis-like wetland reserve that, the story goes, was created by an overflow from a water treatment plant. Now it is lush grounds that attract flocks of migratory flamingos.

Further along roads lined with carefully planted trees, there is the surreal site of an artificial mountain rising on the horizon, its flanks supported by gigantic concrete walls.

And if you stray from the main roads into the back lanes, you’ll encounter wide and dusty camel highways, where cooler evening temperatures see huge fleets of the humpback beasts practice in readiness for the winter racing season.

But one of Al Wathba’s more unusual and elegant attractions is not the work of humans. Instead, it was created over tens of thousands of years by elemental forces that, although they played a role millennia ago, offer insight into how the current climate crisis could reshape our world.

Abu Dhabi’s fossil dunes rise from the surrounding desert like frozen waves in a violent ocean made of firm sand, their sides rippling with shapes defined by raging winds.

‘Complex story’

Fossil Dunes of Abu Dhabi

The fossil dunes have been formed over thousands of years.

Barry Neild/CNN

Although these proud geological relics have been kept in the middle of nowhere for centuries, they opened as a free tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi in 2022 as part of the Emirate’s Environment Agency efforts to preserve them in a protected area.

While Instagrammers and other visitors once needed all-terrain vehicles to drive up to the fossil dunes in search of a dramatic selfie backdrop, they now have a choice of two large parking lots that book a path that winds past some of the more spectacular sights.

Along the way are informative signposts that provide some bare-bones information about the science behind the formation of the dunes – essentially moisture in the soil caused calcium carbonate to harden in the sand, then strong winds scraped them into unusual shapes over time. .

But there’s a lot more to it than that, says Thomas Steuber, a professor in the Earth Sciences Department at the Khalifa University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, who spent much of the Covid lockdown studying the dunes while not in the field. was able to travel to other areas of geological interest.

“It’s a pretty complex story,” Steuber told CNN.

The dunes are a stone’s throw from a Wetland Reserve, Abu Dhabi’s first protected area.

Steuber says generations of dunes were created through cycles of ice ages and thaws that happened between 200,000 and 7,000 years ago. Ocean levels dropped as the frozen water near the polar caps increased, and during these drier periods, dunes are said to have formed as sand blew in from the drained Arabian Gulf.

As the ice melted, leading to a more humid environment, the water table rose in what is now Abu Dhabi and the moisture reacted with the calcium carbonate in the sand to stabilize it and then form a kind of cement, which was later whipped into an essential oil. . formed by the prevailing winds.

destructive forces

Fossil Dunes of Abu Dhabi

High-voltage cables stride behind the dunes, adding a new dimension to the scene.

Barry Neild/CNN

“The Arabian Gulf is a small basin that is very shallow,” Steuber says. “It’s only about 120 meters deep, so at the height of the ice age, about 20,000 years ago, there was so much piled up on the polar caps that water from the ocean was missing. That meant the Gulf was dry and the source of material for the fossil dunes.”

Steuber says the fossil dunes, which are found all over the UAE and also in India, Saudi Arabia and the Bahamas, likely took thousands of years to form. But despite the official protection now afforded in Abu Dhabi, the erosion that has given each its unique shape will eventually lead to their demise.

“Some are quite massive, but eventually the wind will destroy them. They’re basically rocks, but you can sometimes break them with your hands. It’s quite a weak material.”

That is why visitors to Al Wathba are now kept some distance from the dunes, although still close enough to appreciate their unmoved beauty.

It’s best to explore the site in the early evening, when the harsh daylight is replaced by a golden glow from the setting sun and the sky takes on the lilac hues of the magical hour. It takes about an hour to walk the dirt track from the visitor center and souvenir stall to the parking lot on the other side – and about 10 minutes to return.

The pristine serenity of the dunes is contrasted at some points along the trail by a chain of giant red-and-white utility poles striding over the horizon in the distance. Rather than spoiling the scene, this technical spectacle adds a dramatic modern dimension to a landscape otherwise frozen in time.

As dusk falls, some of the dunes are lit up, offering a new way to view these geological wonders.

religious clues

fossil dunes Abu Dhabi night-1

In the evening the dunes are lit up.

Ministry of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi

“The dunes look really amazing,” said Dean Davis, who visited the site on a day off from work in the city of Abu Dhabi. “It’s nice that they are being kept and the government has done a great job.”

Ashar Hafeed, another visitor who is touring with his family, also said he was impressed. “I saw it on Google and just had to come see it,” he said, adding that “once was enough” to appreciate the dunes.

However, Stauber and his team from Khalifa University are likely to be repeat visitors.

“We continue to study them,” he says. “There are quite a few interesting questions about sea level changes during the recent ice ages that remain to be answered and it is very important for understanding the current geomorphology of the Emirates coastline. It is also clearly an analog for future sea level changes.”

And, Steuber says, the dunes could be evidence of the inspiration behind the story of Noah’s flood, which appears in the Quran, the Bible and the Torah, the texts of the three major religions that emerged from the Middle East. .

“Possibly this was the flooding of the Arabian Gulf at the end of the ice ages, because the sea level rise was very fast.

“With a dry Arabian Gulf, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers would have drained into the Indian Ocean and what is now the Gulf would have been quite a fertile lowland area that would have been inhabited 8,000 years ago, and people may have experienced this rapid sea level rise.

“Perhaps it has led to a historical memory that made the holy books of these three local religions.”

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