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

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Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi (CNN) – Drive an hour or so southeast out of the city of Abu Dhabi towards the empty deserts of the emirate, and you will encounter a landscape full of unexpected man-made creations.

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

Further along roads surrounded by carefully planted trees, is the surreal place for an artificial mountain that rises on the horizon, the flanks supported by giant concrete walls.

And stray away from the main roads and into the back lanes, you will encounter wide and dusty camel highways, where cooler evening temperatures see large rafts of humped beasts being trained in readiness for the winter racing season.

But one of Al Wathba’s more unusual and elegant attractions is not the work of man. Instead, it has been created over tens of thousands of years by elemental forces that, even though they were in play millennia ago, provide insight into how the current climate crisis can reshape our world.

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

“Complex history”

Abu Dhabi fossil dunes

The fossil dunes were formed over thousands of years.

Barry Neild / CNN

Although these proud geological relics have survived for centuries in the middle of nowhere, they were opened as a free tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi in 2022 as part of the emirate’s environmental agency’s efforts to preserve them within a protected area.

While Instagrammers and other visitors once needed off-road vehicles to drive up to the fossil dunes in search of a dramatic selfie background, they now have a choice of two large parking lots that book a trail that winds its way past some of the more spectacular landmarks.

Along the way, there are informative signs that provide some bare-bones information about the science behind the dunes – mainly moisture in the ground caused the calcium carbonate in the sand to solidify, then strong winds scraped them into unusual shapes over time.

But it is far more than that, says Thomas Steuber, professor at the Department of Geosciences at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University of Science and Technology, who used much of the Covid lock to study the dunes while unable to travel to other areas of geological interest. .

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

The dunes are a stone’s throw away from a wetland reserve, Abu Dhabi’s first protected area.

Steuber says that generations of dunes were created by cycles of ice ages and thaws that occurred between 200,000 and 7,000 years ago. Sea levels fell as frozen water rose at the polar caps, and in these drier periods dunes would have built up as sand blew in from the drained Persian Gulf.

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

Destructive forces

Abu Dhabi fossil dunes

Power lines run behind the dunes and add a new dimension to the scene.

Barry Neild / CNN

“The Arabian Gulf is a small pool that is very shallow,” says Steuber. “It is only about 120 meters deep, so at the height of the ice age, about 20,000 years ago, there was so much accumulation on polar ice caps that water was lacking from the sea. This meant that the Gulf was dry and was a source of material for the fossil dunes. “

Steuber says that the fossil dunes, which occur throughout the UAE and can also be found in India, Saudi Arabia and the Bahamas, probably took thousands of years to form. But despite the official protection now offered in Abu Dhabi, the erosion that gave each its unique shape will eventually lead to their demise.

“Some of them are quite massive, but in the end the wind will destroy them. They are mainly rocks, but sometimes you can crush them with your hands. It is a rather weak material.”

That’s why visitors to Al Wathba are now kept some distance away from the dunes, even though they are still close enough to appreciate their pristine beauty.

Visiting the place is best early in the evening when hard daylight is replaced by a golden glow from the sunset and the sky takes on purple hues of magical hour. It takes about an hour to walk along the sandy path from the visitor center and souvenir stall to the parking lot at the other end – and about 10 minutes to the shortcut back.

The pristine stillness of the dunes is contrasted at some points along the path by a chain of giant red and white stream masts that cross the horizon in the distance. Instead of ruining the stage, this engineering spectacle adds a dramatically modern dimension to a landscape otherwise frozen in time.

At dusk, some of the dunes become illuminated, offering a new way to see these geological wonders.

Religious clues

fossil dunes Abu Dhabi night-1

At night, the dunes are lit.

Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi

“The dunes look really amazing,” said Dean Davis, who visited the site during a day off from work in Abu Dhabi city. “It is good that they are being preserved and the government has done a good job.”

Ashar Hafeed, another visitor on tour with his family, said he was also impressed. “I saw it on Google and just needed to come and have a look,” he said, adding that “once was enough” to appreciate the dunes.

Stauber and his team from Khalifa University will probably be regulars.

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

And, says Steuber, the dunes can be evidence of the inspiration behind the story of Noah’s flood, which is in the Qur’an, the Bible and the Torah, the texts of the three major religions that come from the Middle East.

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

“With a dry Persian Gulf, the rivers Tigris and Euphrates would have emptied into the Indian Ocean, and what is now the Gulf would have been a fairly fertile low-lying area that 8000 years ago would have been inhabited, and people may have experienced this rapid sea level rise. .

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