Saudi Arabia's northern sand seas are composed dominantly of stable dune systems, even though the modern climate is arid. The stable dunes are large and support a sparse semidesert vegetation. Active dunes are small and commonly confined to the crests of stable dunes; they comprise less than 5 percent of the dunes in the sand seas. Both the stability of the major dune systems and the small percentage of active dunes in the modern environment indicate a significant decrease in the average velocity and frequency of sand-moving winds since the time of stable-dune deposition. Comparison of modern wind directions with dune trends indicates that southwesterly winds responsible for dune formation in the southern and western An Nafud sand sea and in Nafud Urayq are no longer prevailing winds.
Lake deposits are locally interbedded with deposits of eolian sand and in the lee of stable dunes. Radiocarbon dating of calcareous lake deposits defines at least two episodes of moisture-effective climate and minimal eolianactivity: between about 32,000 and 24,000 B.P., just before the onset of the last worldwide glacial stade of the Pleistocene, and during the Holocene between about 8,500 and 5,000 B.P. One lake deposit is more than 38,000 years old and may have been deposited during an earlier pluvial episode about 85,000 to 70,000 B.P. Pollen extracted from these lake deposits indicates that vegetation during late Pleistocene and Holocene pluvial episodes was similar to the present semidesert vegetation; however, the density of shrubs and grasses on the dunes was greater.
The main dune systems overlie the 32,000 to 24,000-yearold lake deposits, whereas the Holocene lakebeds are found in modern interdunal environments, usually at the base of stable dunes. The main dune systems probably formed between 24,000 and 8,500 B.P., during the last episode of worldwide cold temperatures. Increased windiness at this time is also recorded in the world's oceans and in both polar ice caps.
Eolian sand below the older lake deposits was deposited before 32,000 B.P., and circumstantial evidence indicates that the sand seas may have begun to form as early as late Miocene. In the An Nafud, remnants of a middle Tertiary(?) surface suggest that the original sediment source for the An Nafud may have been the weathered sandstones that underlie this surface.
After lacustrine deposition ceased in middle Holocene time, eolian activity increased slightly. Deflation on windward dune slopes has produced deflation scoops, which look like inverted deltas. The modern active dunes are composed of sand deflated from the stable dunes.
Additional Publication Details
USGS Numbered Series
The environmental history and present condition of Saudi Arabia's northern sand seas