In the Media

What the UAE’s Geological Mysteries Teach Us About Climate Change

September 5, 2021

The deep past offers lessons for the near future. 


By Dr. Thomas Steuber


Global environmental change is an increasing concern, particularly in the Gulf. Extreme weather events and rising temperatures and sea levels are becoming more evident by the year. As the climate in the UAE is already hot and dry, and most of its population concentrated along the coastline, what will the future hold? Today, this vital question is typically investigated with complex climate models, and the underlying science is regularly assessed by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which summarises its findings in periodical reports. Its most recent one concluded that climate change is rapid and intensifying.


Fortunately, and unbeknown to many, billions of years of geological history can help help us understand the nature of today’s challenge and help us predict our collective future.


The ground under the UAE has much to offer in this endeavour. Its heritage extends back into “deep time”, hundreds of millions of years into the past. This is far beyond the hundreds of thousands of years when the region is first thought to have been inhabited by humans.


In deep geological terms, several mass extinction events have now been recognised, each of them wiping out more than 70 per cent of species at the time. To understand the causes and effects of these disasters, we need to try our best to read the diverse sedimentary rocks found in the UAE, a form of natural archive. Consider the mountain ranges of the northern emirates and Jebel Hafeet near Al Ain as books waiting to be read.


The first challenge is to understand the language of these books, in order to be able to read them. Then we need to identify the “pages” that contain information about previous catastrophes. This is extremely difficult. Just imagine sifting through millions of pages to find only one containing the information we need. It is not an easy task, but reading earth’s history is a vocation we geologists train for and happily spend much of our lives doing.


Scientists from UAE universities have published their findings on the region for decades. But our area of research has gathered significant momentum recently, as the effects of climate change on biodiversity, sea levels and coastal cities and infrastructure move into public interest. Now, earth scientists of various backgrounds are flocking to the region to contribute to research taking place at the UAE’s exquisite geological “archives”. Recognising the importance of climate change science, the UAE established the Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment, which now gathers local expertise through the UAE Climate Change Research Network.


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