Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi (CNN) — Drive an hour or so southeast of the city of Abu Dhabi on the empty desert side of the emirate and you’ll hit a landscape full of unexpected man-made creations.
The area of Al Wathba is home to a beautiful oasis-like wetland reserve, so the story goes by an overspill from a water treatment facility. Now it is a green area which attracts flocks of migratory flamingos.
With carefully planted trees along the roads, there is the surreal place of an artificial mountain on the horizon, its sides surrounded by towering concrete walls.
And in the back lanes wandering off the main roads, you’ll encounter wide and dusty camel highways, where cooler evening temperatures see vast fleets of humpback animals in readiness for winter racing season.
But one of Al Wathba’s more unusual and elegant attractions is not the work of humans. Instead it is modeled over thousands of years by fundamental forces, though they were at play millennia ago, providing insight into how the current climate crisis may be changing our world.
Abu Dhabi’s fossil mounds rise out of the surrounding desert like frozen ripples in a violent ocean made of solid sand, their shores ripple with shapes defined by raging winds.
Fossil mounds were formed over thousands of years.
Barry Neill / CNN
While these proud geological relics have survived centuries in the middle of nowhere, they were opened as a free tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi in 2022 as part of efforts to preserve them in a protected area by the Emirate’s Environment Agency.
While Instagrammers and other visitors looking for a dramatic selfie backdrop needed all-terrain vehicles to ride up to the fossil dunes, they now have the option of two large parking lots to book a trail that’s a bit more spectacular. crosses landmarks.
Along the way are informative signposts that offer some bare-bones information on the science behind the dune’s formation—essentially, moisture in the ground hardened the calcium carbonate in the sand, then powerful winds forced them into unusual shapes over time. scattered.
But there is much more to it, says Thomas Steber, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University of Science and Technology, who spent most of the Covid lockdown studying the dunes while unable to travel to other areas of geological interest. time spent. ,
“It’s a very complicated story,” Steber tells CNN.
The mounds lie not far from the Wetland Reserve, Abu Dhabi’s first protected area.
Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency dates the fossil mounds to 120,000 to 150,000 years old. Steber says that generations of dunes were formed by cycles of ice ages and thaw that occurred between 200,000 and 7,000 years ago. Sea levels fell as frozen water rose in the polar regions, and during these drier periods, dunes may have formed as sand was blown away from the drier Arabian Gulf.
When the ice melted, creating a more humid environment, the water level in Abu Dhabi rose and the moisture reacted with the calcium carbonate in the sand to stabilize it and then form a type of cement, which was later converted into ether. has been killed. Shaped by prevailing winds.
Power lines run behind the dunes, adding another dimension to the scene.
Barry Neill / CNN
“The Arabian Gulf is a small basin that is very shallow,” says Steber. “It’s only about 120 meters deep, so at the peak of the ice age, about 20,000 years ago, so much had piled up on the polar ice caps that water was missing from the ocean. This meant that the bay was dry and the material for fossil dunes was lost.” Source.”
Steber says the fossil dunes, which are found throughout the United Arab Emirates and can also be found in India, Saudi Arabia and the Bahamas, took thousands of years to form. But, despite the official protection now offered in Abu Dhabi, the erosion that has given each their own distinctive shape will eventually lead to their deaths.
“Some of them are quite huge, but eventually the wind will destroy them. They’re essentially rocks, but you can sometimes break them with your hands. It’s quite a weak material.”
This is why, in Al Wathba, visitors are now being kept at some distance from the dunes, although still close enough to appreciate their enchanting beauty.
It is best to visit the site in the evening when the harsh daylight is replaced by a golden glow from the setting sun and the sky takes on the lilac hue of magic hour. It takes about an hour to walk the sandy path from the visitor center and souvenir stall to the parking lot at the other end – and about 10 minutes to get back to Shortcut.
The untouched serenity of the dunes is contrasted at some point by a series of giant red and white lightning pylons with markings that loom over the horizon in the distance. Rather than spoil the scene, 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 whole new way of viewing these geological wonders.
At night, the dunes are illuminated.
Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi
“The dunes look really amazing,” said Dean Davis, visiting the site during a day off from work in downtown Abu Dhabi. “It’s good that they are being protected and the government has done a great job.”
Another visitor, Ashar Hafeed, who was on the tour with his family, said he was also affected. “I googled it and just needed to come and see,” he said, “once was enough” to appreciate the dunes.
However, Stauber and his team of Khalifa University are likely to make frequent visits.
“We are continuing to study them,” he says. “There are still some interesting questions about sea-level changes during recent ice ages and this is of great importance for understanding the current geomorphology of the emirate’s coastline. This clearly shows future sea-level changes.” There’s also an analog for it.”
And, Steber says, the dunes may be evidence of the inspiration behind Noah’s flood story, which is in the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah, texts from three major religions that emerged from the Middle East.
“Presumably, it was the flooding of the Arabian Gulf at the end of the Ice Age, because sea level rise was too rapid.
“Along with the dry Arabian Gulf, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers would have left the Indian Ocean and what is now the gulf would have been a fairly fertile lowland area that would have been inhabited 8,000 years ago, and people would have experienced this rapid seafloor. level increase.
“Perhaps it gave rise to some historical memory that made up the sacred books of these three local religions.”