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

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Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi (CNN) – Drive an hour or more southeast to the empty desert of the Emirates outside the city of Abu Dhabi and you’ll hit a landscape full of unexpected man-made creations.

The region of Al Wathba is home to a beautiful oasis-like wetland reserve, so the story progresses from oversipping the water purification facility. It is now a lush terrain that attracts flocks of migratory flamingos.

Ahead of carefully drawn tree-lined paths, on the horizon is an artificial realm of artificial mountains, the sides of which are lined with huge concrete walls.

And walk down the back streets from the main thoroughfares, you’ll find wide and dusty camel highways, where you’ll see huge flocks of humped animals in readiness for the winter racing season in the cold evening evenings.

But one of Al Wathba’s more unusual and magnificent attractions is not the work of man. Instead it has been formed by fundamental forces over thousands of years, which, despite being in play thousands of years ago, give an understanding of how the current climate crisis could shape our world.

Abu Dhabi’s fossilized mounds emerge from the surrounding desert like frozen waves in a violent ocean of solid sand, their sides fluttering with a shape defined by strong winds.

‘Complex story’

Abu Dhabi Fossil Dunes

Fossil mounds were formed over thousands of years.

Barry Neeld / CNN

Although these glorious geological remains have survived anywhere in the Middle Ages for centuries, they were opened in 2022 as a free tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi as part of the UAE Environment Agency’s efforts to preserve them within a protected area.

While Instagrammers and other visitors at one time needed vehicles from all over the terrain to ride to the foothills of Ashmina in search of a dramatic selfie backdrop, they now get a choice of two large parking lots that book a trail that traverses some of the more spectacular landmarks.

Along the way there are informative signposts that give some exposed bone information on the science behind the creation of mounds – essentially, the calcium carbonate in the sand hardens due to the moisture in the soil, then strong winds turn it into unusual shapes over time.

But there’s more, says Thomas Steiber, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University of Science and Technology, who spent most of the Kovid lockdown studying mounds when he could not travel to other areas of geological interest. .

“It’s a very complex story,” Steiber told CNN.

The mounds throw a stone from Wetland Reserve, the first protected area of ​​Abu Dhabi.

Steiber says that generations of dunes were formed 200,000 and 7,000 years ago by the Ice Age and melting cycles. When the frozen water on the polar caps rose, the sea level dropped, and during this dry period, sand dunes from the Arabian Gulf may have raised hills.

When the ice melts and leads to a more humid atmosphere, the water structure now bounces in Abu Dhabi and the reaction of the moisture with the calcium carbonate in the sand stabilizes it and then forms a kind of cement, which is later whipped into ethereal. Shape by prevailing wind.

Destructive forces

Abu Dhabi Fossil Dunes

The power lines go behind the mounds, which adds another dimension to the scene.

Barry Neeld / CNN

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

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Steiber says the fossil mounds, found throughout the UAE and in India, Saudi Arabia and the Bahamas, took thousands of years to form. But even with the official security now offered in Abu Dhabi, the erosion that gave everyone its unique shape will eventually lead to their death.

“Some of them are very large, but in the end the wind will destroy them. They are essentially rocks, but you can sometimes break them with your hands. It is a very weak material.”

That is why, at Al Wathba, visitors are now kept a little away from the hills, even though it is still close enough to admire their vague beauty.

It is best to visit the site early in the evening when the harsh daylight is replaced by the golden glow of the setting sun and the sky takes on a magical lilac hue. It takes about an hour to stroll along the sandy road from the visitor center and souvenir stall to the parking lot at the other end – and about 10 minutes to take the shortcut back.

The untouched peace of the hills is contrasted with the trail by a chain of huge red and white lightning pylons at some points that run across the horizon in the distance. Instead of spoiling the scene, this engineering adds a dramatic modern dimension to the spectacular landscape otherwise it freezes over time.

As the evening draws to a close, some hills are released, providing a new way to view these geological wonders.

Religious signs

Ashmina Tekra Abu Dhabi Night-1

At night, the hills are illuminated.

Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi

“The hills look really wonderful,” said Dean Davis, who visited the site during a day off from work in Abu Dhabi. “It’s great that they’re being protected and the government has done a great job.”

Another visitor, Usher Hafid, who was traveling with his family, said they were also impressed. “I saw it on Google and just needed to come and take a look,” he said, “once was enough” to appreciate the hills.

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

“We continue to study them,” he says. “There are many interesting questions about sea-level changes during the recent ice age that remain to be answered and it is very important to understand the current topography of the emirate’s coastline. It is obviously an analogy to future sea-level changes.”

And, Steiber says, the mounds may be evidence of inspiration behind the story of Noah’s flood, which is reflected in the Koran, the Bible and the Torah, the texts of the three major religions originating from the Middle East.

“Presumably, the Arabian Gulf was flooded at the end of this ice age, because the sea level rise was very fast.

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

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

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