Fossil dunes of Abu Dhabi: an icy landscape created by climate change

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Al Watba, Abu Dhabi (CNN) — Driving an hour or so southeast of the city of Abu Dhabi towards the deserted deserts of the emirate, you will see a landscape full of unexpected man-made creations.

The Al Watba region is home to a beautiful oasis reserve, created, as the story goes, as a result of an overflow from a wastewater treatment plant. Now it is a lush area that attracts flocks of migratory flamingos.

Further along the roads, lined with carefully planted trees, a surreal artificial mountain rises on the horizon, the slopes of which are supported by giant concrete walls.

And if you turn off the main roads into the secondary roads, you will encounter wide and dusty camel highways, where cooler evening temperatures allow you to see huge flocks of humpbacked animals preparing for the winter racing season.

But one of the most unusual and elegant sights of Al Watba is not the work of people. Instead, it has been crafted over tens of thousands of years by elemental forces that, while at work millennia ago, provide a glimpse of how the current climate crisis could change our world.

The fossilized dunes of Abu Dhabi rise above the surrounding desert like frozen waves in a raging ocean of hard sand, their slopes rippling with shapes defined by raging winds.

“Complicated History”

Fossil dunes have been formed over thousands of years.

Barry Nield/CNN

Although these proud geological relics have been preserved off the beaten path for centuries, they were opened as a free tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi in 2022 as part of the emirate’s Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to preserve them in a protected area.

While Instagrammers and other visitors once needed ATVs to drive up to the fossil dunes for a dramatic selfie backdrop, they now have the choice of two large parking lots that complete the trail that meanders past some of the most impressive sights.

There are informative signs along the way that give some information about the science behind the creation of the dunes – in fact, the moisture in the ground caused the calcium carbonate in the sand to harden, and then strong winds shaped them into an unusual shape over time.

But that’s not all, says Thomas Stoiber, professor of earth sciences at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University of Science and Technology, who has spent most of the Covid quarantine studying the dunes, unable to travel to other areas of geological interest. .

“It’s a pretty complicated story,” Stoiber tells CNN.

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

The Abu Dhabi Environmental Protection Agency dates the fossil dunes to between 120,000 and 150,000 years old. Stoiber says the dune generations were created by cycles of ice ages and thaws that occurred between 200,000 and 7,000 years ago. Ocean levels dropped as the ice caps increased, and during these drier periods, the dunes grew as sand was blown in from the drained Arabian Gulf.

When the ice melted, resulting in a wetter environment, the water table rose in what is now Abu Dhabi, and the moisture reacted with the calcium carbonate in the sand, stabilizing it, and then forming a kind of cement, which later turned into an ethereal substance. shape by the prevailing winds.

Destructive forces

Fossil dunes of Abu Dhabi

Power lines run behind the dunes, adding another dimension to the scene.

Barry Nield/CNN

“The Arabian Gulf is a small, very shallow basin,” Stoiber says. “It is only about 120 meters deep, so at the peak of the ice age, about 20,000 years ago, so much ice accumulated on the polar caps that there was no water in the ocean. This meant that the bay was dry and was a source of material for fossil dunes.”

Stoiber says the fossil dunes, which are found in the UAE as well as in India, Saudi Arabia and the Bahamas, most likely took thousands of years to form. But despite the official protection currently offered in Abu Dhabi, the erosion that gave each of them their unique shape will also eventually lead to their demise.

“Some of them are quite massive, but eventually they will be destroyed by the wind. In fact, these are stones, but sometimes they can be broken by hand. It’s pretty weak stuff.”

This is why, at Al Watba, visitors are now kept some distance from the dunes, but still close enough to appreciate their impassive beauty.

The best time to view this place is in the early evening, when the harsh daylight gives way to the golden glow of the setting sun, and the sky takes on the lilac hues of the magic hour. It takes about an hour to walk along the sandy path from the visitor center and souvenir shop to the parking lot at the other end, and about 10 minutes back.

The untouched serenity of the dunes contrasts at some points along the trail with the chain of giant red and white electric pylons that stride over the distant horizon. Rather than spoil the picture, this engineering spectacle adds a dramatic modern dimension to a landscape otherwise frozen in time.

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

Religious clues

fossil dunes abu dhabi night-1

The dunes are lit up at night.

Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi

“The dunes look really amazing,” said Dean Davis, who visited the site on a weekend after work in Abu Dhabi. “It’s good that they are being preserved and the government has done a great job.”

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

However, Stauber and his team at Khalifa University are likely to be regular visitors.

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

And, says Stoiber, the dunes could be an inspiration for the tale of Noah’s flood, which appears in the Koran, the Bible and the Torah, texts from three major religions that originated in the Middle East.

“Perhaps it was the flooding of the Persian Gulf at the end of the ice age, because the sea level was rising very quickly.

“With the Arabian Gulf dry, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers would flow into the Indian Ocean, and what is now the gulf would have been a fairly fertile lowland area that would have been inhabited 8000 years ago, and people may have experienced this rapid rise in sea level.

“Perhaps this led to some of the historical memories that made the books of these three local religions sacred.”

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