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Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi (CNN) — Drive about an hour southeast of Abu Dhabi city to the empty deserts of the emirate and you’ll discover a landscape full of unexpected human creations.

The Al Wathba area is home to a beautiful oasis-like wetland reserve created, the story goes, by a spill from a water treatment facility. It is now lush terrain that attracts flocks of migrating flamingos.

Ahead, along roads lined with neatly planted trees, rises the surreal site of a man-made mountain looming on the horizon, its sides buttressed by gigantic concrete walls.

And as you head away from the main roads towards the back streets, you’ll encounter wide, dusty camel roads, where cooler nighttime temperatures see vast fleets of humpbacked beasts training in preparation for the winter racing season.

But one of Al Wathba’s most unusual and elegant attractions is not the work of humans. Instead, it was crafted over tens of thousands of years by elemental forces which, despite having been in play 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 solid sand, their sides undulating with shapes defined by strong winds.

“Complex story”

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 efforts of the emirate’s Environment Agency. to preserve them in a protected area.

Where Instagrammers and other visitors once needed off-road vehicles to drive up to the fossil dunes in search of a dramatic backdrop for selfies, they now have the choice of two large parking lots that end a trail that meanders past some of the most spectacular sights.

Along the way, informative panels give information about the science behind the creation of the dunes – essentially, soil moisture hardened the calcium carbonate in the sand, then powerful winds scraped them into unusual shapes over time. time.

But there is much more than that, says Thomas Steuber, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Khalifa University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, who has spent much of the Covid lockdown studying dunes without be 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 by cycles of ice ages and thaws that occurred between 200,000 and 7,000 years ago. Ocean levels fell as frozen water rose to the level of the polar caps and during these drier periods dunes would have accumulated as sand blew in from the drained Persian Gulf.

When the ice melted, resulting in 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 then whipped into ethereal. formed by the prevailing winds.

destructive forces

Frozen sand dunes created by climate change

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

Barry Neild/CNN

“The Persian Gulf is a small, very shallow basin,” Steuber explains. “It’s only about 120 meters deep, so at the height of the ice age, about 20,000 years ago, there was so much stuff piled up on the polar ice caps that there was no water in the ocean. This meant that the gulf was dry and was the source of material for the fossil dunes.”

Steuber says the fossil dunes, which are found throughout the United Arab Emirates and can also be found in India, Saudi Arabia and the Bahamas, likely took thousands of years to form. But, despite the official protection now afforded to Abu Dhabi, the erosion that gave each its unique shape will eventually lead to their demise as well.

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

This is why, at Al Wathba, visitors are now kept away from the dunes, although still close enough to appreciate their emotionless beauty.

The site is best visited 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 magic hour. It takes about an hour to walk along the sandy path from the visitor center and souvenir stand to the parking lot at the other end – and about 10 minutes to walk back.

The untouched serenity of the dunes is contrasted in places along the trail by a string of towering red and white power pylons that span the horizon in the distance. Rather than spoiling the scene, this engineering spectacle adds a modern dramatic dimension to an otherwise frozen-in-time landscape.

As night falls, some of the dunes light up, providing a new way to view these geological wonders.

Religious clues

Frozen sand dunes created by climate change

At night, the dunes are illuminated.

Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi

“The dunes are truly amazing,” said Dean Davis, visiting the site on a day off in Abu Dhabi City. “It’s good that they are retained and the government has done a great 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 likely be regular visitors.

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

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

“It may have been 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 Tigris and Euphrates rivers would have flowed into the Indian Ocean and what is now the gulf would have been a fairly fertile low-lying area which 8,000 years ago would have been inhabited, and people could have experienced this rapid sea level rise.

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


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