SPORTS: The World Cup in the Qatar desert would have been surrounded by greenery thousands of years ago.

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In case you’ve been spending your days with your eyes and ears shut tight, you’re probably aware that the World Cup has kicked off in Qatar, one of those super-rich, single-resource, mostly desert countries in the Middle East. Its geography and climate have added to the controversy surrounding FIFA’s awarding of the World Cup to the Gulf nation. Rather than play the surrounding desert down, Qatar has played it up (understandably so). Nothing represents this more than Al Bayt Stadium – the venue that held the opening ceremony as well as Qatar’s unceremonious opening-night loss to Ecuador – which is designed to resemble a massive desert tent.

For the most part, we take for granted that the Saharan-Arabian Desert regions are arid sandlots. (When was the last time you wondered whether the Arabian Peninsula had always been a desert?) On top of that, most people just know it’s hot there. While spring, summer, and fall months can get pretty hot – especially June, July, and August when temperatures can top 42C/108F – winter in Qatar is pretty similar to winter in Los Angeles.

The Arabian Peninsula hasn’t always been an arid ocean of sand. Like the rest of the world, it has seen its fair share of climate swings, thanks in part to its formation millions of years ago. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica

Roughly 33 million years ago, early in the Oligocene Epoch, Arabia began to split away from Africa. That was the onset of a period of rifting that was caused by upwelling from Earth’s mantle beneath the regions now lying on either side of the Red Sea. Between 30 and 20 million years ago, rising magma flowed to the surface as lava to produce flood basalts reaching thicknesses as great as 9,800 feet (3,000 metres). Those flood basalts now form large parts of the high mountains along the Red Sea margin in Yemen. Volcanism has continued on a lesser scale into the Holocene Epoch (the past 11,700 years). The upwelling magma caused the region to dome and rise. That action thinned and extended the crust to produce extensive fault systems along the Red Sea margin. By about 6 to 5 million years ago, rifting had progressed so much that oceanic crust began to form in the Red Sea to produce a proto-ocean (the early stage of a new ocean). Throughout that period of rifting, the Arabian plate has rotated progressively northward to collide with the Eurasian plate.

While most of the peninsula’s existence has been in its arid form, it has experienced drastic changes in climate. Notably, a few thousand years ago, the oceans of Arabian sand had been transformed into lush savannahs. 

A recent study seems to have established the less arid period in Arabia’s history. In it, researchers examined findings from the Khall Amayshan 4 and Jubbah Oasis sites. Both are associated with the remains of ancient lakes in the Nefud Desert, Saudi Arabia. Each ancient lake represents a stable period of climate, believed to have formed when climate change led to periods of increased rainfall approximately 400, 300, 200, 130-75, and 55 thousand years ago. This transformed the region into a green savannah much more amenable to human habitation.

However, the most convincing proof that the desert had been transformed into a savannah with bodies of water scattered throughout came in the form of animal fossils. The change in climate allowed animals that thrive in wetter conditions to inhabit the region. Aquatic mollusks and hippos are evidenced in the fossil record from the site and, in the eyes of researchers, are practically smoking guns.

The repeated presence of hippopotamuses, which are obligate semi-aquatic mammals that require permanent water bodies several metres deep, provides powerful evidence for the extent of environmental amelioration during repeated ‘green Arabia’ pluvial phases. In addition, the KAM 4 palaeontological assemblages contribute to a growing corpus of evidence indicating that Arabian mammal fauna had stronger affinity with Africa in the Middle and Late Pleistocene than with the Levantine woodland zone. The presence of African bovid taxa such as Syncerus and Hippotragus in northern Arabia indicates the repeated establishment of contiguous regions of grasslands across North Africa and Arabia with abundant freshwater, providing dispersal routes for a variety of species, including hominins. [STUDY]

As everyone knows, conditions on the Arabian Peninsula reverted back to being an arid desert. Another recent study that investigated the aridification of the Eastern Sahara is probably applicable since it is widely believed that the conditions that affected Northern Africa also influenced the Arabian Peninsula.

According to the paper, the gradual drying was the result of a change in the Earth’s orbit.

The widely-held belief is that the Sahara dried up due to a change in the Earth's orbit, which affects solar insolation, or the amount of electromagnetic energy the Earth receives from the sun. In simpler terms, insolation refers to the amount of sunlight shining down on a particular area at a certain time, and depends on factors such as the geographic location, time of day, season, landscape and local weather.

“Climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, explained that around 8,000 years ago, the Earth's orbit was slightly different to how it is today. The tilt changed from around 24.1 degrees to the present-day 23.5 degrees.

The tilt also had additional effects on climate because changes in insolation also impact  atmospheric weather patterns such as monsoons. When the northern hemisphere received more sunlight, it also intensified the monsoons. However, when the Earth’s tilt changed, the monsoons decreased and the vegetation began to disappear. The lack of plants to retain and release water back into the atmosphere, caused the rain to decrease. The resulting feedback loop between plant life and climate eventually created the current desert conditions.

And that’s how the world’s best football players ended up kicking a ball around in the middle of the desert on patches of grass in the middle of winter. To think, if they had played this World Cup a few thousand years earlier, they’d be surrounded by greenery.

WORDS: Marc Landas.

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