Encyclopedia of Coastal Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Charles W. Finkl, Christopher Makowski

Asia, Middle East, Coastal Ecology and Geomorphology

  • Paul SanlavilleEmail author
  • Abel PrieurEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-48657-4_17-2
Between the Bosphorus to the west and the Iran-Pakistan border to the east, the coasts of the Middle East may be divided into two different provinces, the Mediterranean one to the west and the Indian Ocean one to the east. The first province concerns the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Turkey on the one hand and the Levantine coast on the other hand. The second province includes three rather different sectors: the western coast of the Red Sea and the coasts of the Persian Gulf, two elongated and narrow inland seas, and the Indian Ocean coasts, comprising the south Arabian coast, the Gulf of Oman, and the Makran coasts. Each of these sectors presents its own particularities together with some common characteristics, whether in tectonics, climatology, ecology, or geomorphology (Figs. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).
Fig. 1

Location map

Fig. 2

Tectonic map

Fig. 3

Bathymetric map

Fig. 4

Sea surface salinity (‰ in August)

Fig. 5

Winds and currents in January

Fig. 6

Winds and currents in July

Fig. 7

Mean winter temperatures

Fig. 8

Mean summer temperatures

Fig. 9

Mean annual precipitation in coastal areas

The Coasts of Anatolia

Climate, Vegetation, Hydrology

Along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Anatolia, the annual precipitation ranges from 400 mm in the plains, with a minimum in the sheltered areas like the Çukurova plain, to more than 1000 mm on the hills and flanks of mountains, notably in the Lycian sector. In winter, the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal areas are by far milder than in central Anatolia, with mean January temperature higher than 10 °C in sectors bordering the sea along the Mediterranean Sea and higher than 5 °C on the lower slopes of the hills and mountains. But everywhere freezing may occur, especially in the Aegean area. Summers are very hot; mean August temperatures exceed 25 °C and maximum absolute temperatures reach 40 °C or more, particularly in the Cilician plain. Rainfall occurs in winter and the summer is dry for about 6 months. Vegetation is much more xerophytic than in the West Mediterranean province. The seaward slopes of the coastal mountain ridges are truly Mediterranean in vegetation and in climate. Along the Amanus Mountains, the evergreen maquis zone of Quercus calliprinos and Pistacia palaestina sometimes starts at sea level and extends to an altitude of about 700 m. In the Lycian-Cilician sector, the eu-Mediterranean belt is confined to a very narrow ribbon with the same plant association of the evergreen maquis. In the Aegean sector, the evergreen maquis mainly comprises the association Pistacia lentiscus, Olea eumpaea, and Myrtus (Zohary 1973).

The ratio of precipitation/evaporation shows a deficit and the eastern Mediterranean Sea receives water coming from the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, the salinity in the Aegean Sea is notably lower than in the eastern Mediterranean; in August, it is less than 38‰ in the north, less than 39‰ in the south of the Aegean Sea, whereas it is more than 39‰ in the eastern Mediterranean along the Turkish and Levantine coasts. Marine currents are generally north-south in the Aegean Sea and east-west along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. On the whole, sea water temperatures increase from the north to the south in the Aegean Sea and from the west to the east in the Mediterranean, rising for example in August from 25 °C along the south-west coast of Anatolia to over 28 °C along the Cilician coast.

Regional Features

The Turkish Aegean coastline is very long (3484 km) and indented. It presents a great variety of lithological units, with alternation of crystalline massifs and Mesozoic geosynclinal belts including mostly limestone, flysch, and ophiolitic formations. This area is tectonically controlled by a highly complex structure of east-west oriented active horsts and grabens. Peninsulas, islands, rocky cliffs, and a narrow continental shelf correspond to the horsts. In the grabens there are wide continental shelves prolonging vast deltaic plains bordered with marshes, dunes, and sandy beaches. In the north, the Sea of Marmara, related to the greater Anatolian fault, is very deep (> 1300 m) (Fig. 1).

During the Middle Miocene severe tectonic phases occurred and grabens formed. These grabens were submerged by marine transgressions during the Quaternary, and during the glacial periods rivers deepened their courses. During the Holocene, when the sea-level rise had reached its present level about 6000 years ago, major marine embayments occurred in several depressions where the main rivers ended; such as the Gediz, the Küçük Menderes, and the Büyük Menderez. Many important cities of the Hellenistic to Roman times were located on the immediate coastline and closely associated with the sea, such as Ephes, Priene, Milatus, or Heracleia; in the vicinity of Ancient Troy, the marine embayment protruded nearly 10 km south of the site. But, quickly, deltaic progradation and floodplain aggradation, caused by deforestation and severe erosion on the steep slopes of this mountainous country, markedly changed the landscape: the depressions were infilled with prograding river alluvium and deltas. These towns were separated from the sea; Ephes in the plain of the Küçük Menderes and Priene or Milatus in the Büyük Menderez basin, and the site of Troy is now about 6 km from the sea. Sometimes, for instance, in the Gediz Basin and the Izmir area, it seems that the evolution was more complex and mainly controlled by intense tectonics. The progradation was less marked where there is no major drainage system to provide sediment, for instance, in the south as in the Gökova Gulf. Now, progradation has largely halted mainly where the grabens widen rapidly into larger coastal embayments and modern deltas are wave dominated (Kraft et al. 1980; Erol 1985; Aksu et al. 1987; Hakyemez et al. 1999; Kayan 1999).

The Mediterranean coastline of Turkey (1707 km) is more regular and rectilinear than the Aegean coast, because of its longitudinal structure. The coastline is subparallel to the Taurus Mountains consisting of Paleozoic to Tertiary folded formations where carbonate rocks outcrop largely, favoring numerous karstic features. West of Antalya, the Taurus Mountains, S-N oriented, rise sharply and steeply out of the sea with high cliffs and only very small deltaic coastal plains. From Antalya to Alanya, there is a major embayment with a wide coastal plain edged by extensive coastal dunes and sandy beaches with frequent beach-rock formations; the only exception are the travertine cliffs at Antalya. Marine Pleistocene terraces occur to the east of the Antalya Bay at heights from 5 m to 20–30 m or even higher. Here, as in the Hatay area, beaches and bio-erosional notches and benches are frequent, between +0.80 and +2.5 m, testifying to late Holocene uplifts (Pirazzoli 1986; Kayan 1994). East of Alanya, once more, the Taurus Mountains rise directly out of the sea with very steep flanks and cliffs in Paleozoic schists and Mesozoic limestones. Scattered sandy beaches exist at the mouth of the rivers but elsewhere the coastline is dominated by plunging cliffs or by pebble beaches at the foot of the cliffs. The main river is the Göksu, characterized by a small lobed delta plain. East of Göksu, between the SW-NE Taurus Mountains and the N-S Amanus mountains (or Nur Mountains), there is the large Çukurova plain (or Cilician plain) which is a progradational plain built by two big rivers, the Seyhan to the west and the Ceyhan to the east. The plain, formerly swampy or marshy, but now largely drained and dry, is edged by a series of broad Holocene accretion beaches. At the foot of the Amanus Mountains, the rectangular-shaped Gulf of Iskenderun is structurally controlled. At the very southern end of the coast of Turkey, the Orontes River crosses the Amanus Mountains in a narrow defile and ends in a small delta near the ancient harbor of Seleucia ad Orontes (Erol 1985). Almost everywhere, the coastline is now receding owing to the taking of sediments on beaches and dunes, the setting up of dams, and slight raising of the sea level, and slabs of beach rock are more and more frequent on the beaches.

Cyprus Island lies south of Turkey. Its coastline, about 450 km long, is partly steep and rocky in the north (notably in the Karpos Peninsula) and in the SW (at the foot of Troodos massif) and partly beach-fringed, particularly in the southeast, alongside the Mesogea central plain, mainly between Limassol and Famagusta where there are some brackish lagoons (Fig. 2).

The Levantine Coast

Climate and Marine Hydrology

The climate is clearly Mediterranean, with hot and dry summers, and rainy and mild winters and the winds mainly blowing from the west. Average rainfall decreases from the north (ca. 1000 mm north of Latakia) to the south (313 mm at Gaza). Average air temperature along the coast usually ranges from 11 °C to 14 °C in January (with minima reaching the freezing point) and from 23 °C to 26 °C in August with absolute maximum temperatures over 45 °C. Tidal range does not exceed 40 cm. There is an anticlockwise east Mediterranean current, which moves south-north along the Levantine coast. Longshore currents occur too, influenced by coastal morphology and wind direction, but the resultant shifting is to the north. All these currents carry the Nile sediments northward up to south Lebanon. Westerly and especially southwest winds are dominant. As the fetch is large, the coast undergoes strong wave action. In winter, storms are sometimes severe: in January 1968, with wind speeds of almost 150 km per hour, wave heights reached 7 m off the Beirut region.

The living world of the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean is impoverished and the littoral fauna and flora are poorly diversified in comparison to that of the western Mediterranean as a result of the extremely low biological productivity of the Levantine basin, mainly since the opening of the Suez Canal and the erection of the Upper Assouan Dam. Since the opening of the Suez Canal, over 300 migrant species have invaded the Mediterranean from the Red Sea at a faster and faster rate; nine new species of fish arrived between 1902 and 1939, but 22 from 1965 to 1987. Among the “Lessepsian” crustaceans, decapods are particularly representative, such as Myra fugax or Atergatis roseus, and Charybdis longicollis represents up to 70‰ of the sandy-muddy bottoms. Among the Serpulids, seven Lessepsian species have been identified, belonging to three genera, and 33 algae are possibly lessepsian (Por 1982, 1990).

Coastal Morphology

The rectilinear Levantine coast is open to the western winds and swells. The only noteworthy irregularities of the coast are such peninsulas as Ras el-Bassit in Syria, Ras el-Mina (near Tripoli), Ras Chekka, Ras Beirut, and Tyr in Lebanon, and Mount Carmel in Israel. Some of them (Tripoli or Tyr) are ancient rocky islands more or less recently connected to the mainland by a sandy bar (tombolo). Bays are generally small, the most important being the Akkar Bay, on the Syria-Lebanon frontier, and the Haifa Bay in Israel. Transverse faults, often east-west, account for the main features of the coastline. The north Levantine coast runs parallel to the folded coastal mountain range of Jabal Ansarieh in Syria and Mount Lebanon (culminating at 3083 m) in Lebanon. The mountain range approaches very close to the Mediterranean Sea, mainly in Lebanon where, in the Jounieh Bay, for example, the altitude reaches 600 m less than 1 km from the sea as the crow flies. Nevertheless, high cliffs are uncommon, except in the Jabal Akra in the north of Syria, or at Ras Chekka or Ras Beirut in Lebanon. In the northern Levant, the continental shelf is narrow and broken by very deep and steep canyons, as in the Beirut Bay; in the south, the continental shelf gets wider and wider and its slope is very gentle. The coastal plain is discontinuous and narrow in the north Levant, widening in south Lebanon, between Saida and Tyr, and even more south of the Mount Carmel; getting wider and wider to the south, it reaches a width of 40 km near Gaza. On the other hand, north of Haifa, the coast is Relicts of Pleistocene kurkar (dune calcarenite, called ramleh in Arabic) ridges form several parallel alignments in the coastal plain south of Mount Carmel, witnesses of several coastal dunes associated with transgressive coastlines; the waves sometimes attack the westernmost kurkar, cutting it into a cliff preceded by a wide rocky platform (Nir 1982). The youngest one also occurs as small islands or islets off the coast of Palestine, Lebanon (at Sidon and near Tripoli), and Syria (Arados) (Fig. 3).

Syria, Lebanon, and Mount Carmel show fine examples of little deformed, but strongly uplifted Pleistocene coastlines up to 300 m above present sea level (Sanlaville 1977), resembling wide horizontal flat platforms edged with indurated beach sediments, sometimes containing paleolithic artifacts. The last interglacial deposits, between 6 m and 12 m, contain a rich Tyrrhenian fauna; at Naame, 15 km south of Beirut, 14 species living on the western coast of Africa but missing today on the Mediterranean coast, were found, such as Strombus bubonius, Cantharus viverratus, Conus testudinarius, Arca afra, Cymatium costatum, etc. (Fleisch et al. 1981). Holocene marine deposits are also frequent, indicating recent oscillations of the sea level or tectonic movements up to 2 m, but the aggradation beaches were often clearly in phase with fluviatile discharges controlled by climatic oscillations or anthropic factors (Sanlaville et al. 1997).

Erosion and Pollution

Some decades ago, beach rock occurred here and there along the Levantine coast but it is now widespread all along the coast, in relation to strong beach erosion which results in the disappearance of the beach sand and the exhumation of an ancient slightly consolidated buried beach, then strongly indurated when exhumed. Everywhere the coast is retreating, sometimes rapidly, and beach sediments and dune sands disappear quickly. This coast is also badly polluted and the landscapes are greatly altered by sea walls, breakwaters, harbors, and all sorts of concrete buildings. Because of the westerly swell, the presence of slabs of beach rock at the lower edge of beaches or the presence of deep and sharp lapiaz on the rocky coastal areas, and severe pollution, this coast is not as attractive as it was, despite good climatic conditions (Fig. 4).

The Red Sea Coast

Structure, Climate, and Marine Hydrology

The Red Sea occupies a complex rift system between the African and Arabian plates, when separation occurred in the mid-Tertiary times. The Red Sea opened into the Indian Ocean in Miocene times and remained open into the Mediterranean until the early Quaternary. The beginning graben event reactivated erosion and due to the penetration of the sea, carbonates and evaporites were deposited, with coarse-clastic intercalations. With the closure of the Mediterranean connection and tectonic and eustatic changes affecting the Bab al Mandeb narrows, the Red Sea became isolated during the later Quaternary and, because of intense evaporation, greatly diminished in volume with a dramatic impact on shore-zone morphology and ecology.

Connection between the waters of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean is hindered by a shallow submarine sill in the Bab el Mandeb narrows; the narrows are only 20 km wide and near the Hanish Island, the sill does not exceed −137 m. In the north, the Suez Canal established an artificial but very weak contact with the Mediterranean Sea. The climate of the area is hot and arid. In February, the temperature in the coastal plain (Tihama) varies from 12 °C in the north to over 26 °C in the south (23.5 °C in Jeddah), and in August it is over 30 °C (Jeddah, 32.4 °C). The Tihama receives less than 50 mm of rain. North of Jeddah, the rainfall does not reach 100 mm in the mountains (occurring in winter and spring), but it is more important in the south: over 400 mm in the Asir and over 600 mm in Yemen (in summer and spring) where mountains are very high. But water is lost before reaching the sea, so the Red Sea does not receive freshwater, since evaporation is very high (more than 2 m per year). The shortage must be supplied by the Indian Ocean through the Bab al Mandeb, where three currents are superposed in summer and two in winter as a result of water density and seasonal winds. So the Red Sea is warm and very salty. Surface sea water temperature stands between 28 °C and 31 °C in the northern part in August (under 28 °C in the Aqaba Gulf) and rises above 31 °C in the southern part. In February, the surface sea water temperature rises from the north (less than 20 °C in the Aqaba Gulf) to the south (26 °C). Salinity is very high in summer, increasing regularly from the south (37‰) to the north (over 41‰ in the Gulf of Suez). Sea water temperature and transparency are very favorable to coral reefs and the mangal vegetation is well developed, dominated by Avicennia marina; along the southern Red Sea coast there is also found Rhizophora mucronata, Bruguiera gymnorrhiza, and Ceriops tagal (Glover 1998). Winds are predominantly from the NW all over the Red Sea in summer; in winter, NW winds occur in the northern part of the Red Sea but SE winds blow in the southern part. The marine currents are oriented north-south in summer and south-north in winter. Tidal range is insignificant; 0.10 m in Jeddah, but atmospheric pressure and winds can bring about variations of the sea level up to 0.90 m, which is very dangerous for boats due to coral reefs (Fig. 5).

Coastal Morphology

The landscape of the region is predominantly mountainous; the highest peaks are often in excess of 2500 m, mainly in the south, in Asir or Yemen where mountains reach a height of over 3000 m and up to 3760 m at the Jabal Nabi Shuaib, in Yemen. In places, the strongly dissected mountains come right down to the sea. But generally a flat plain, 5–40 km wide, constitutes an almost 2000 km long marginal corridor, called the Tihama, following the border of the Arabian Mountains. Plutonic, volcanic, and metamorphic rocks outcrop in the mountains. In the Tihama, the basement is generally hidden below Tertiary and Quaternary rocks. Tertiary sediments, which can reach a thickness of over 2000 m, generally present a division into three series: Oligocene, Lower, and Middle Miocene limestones and conglomerates, Middle and Upper Miocene evaporites, and Upper Miocene-Pliocene limestones and clastic red series. Frequently, Tertiary rocks are exposed only at the edge of the basement and in a few places in the coastal plain where mainly Quaternary deposits outcrop, constituted of gravel terraces, extensive alluvial cones and uplifted coral reefs.

Coming out of the mountains, the alluvial surfaces fall relatively steeply to the coast. They can be recognized by their covering of pebbles and gravels with particularly dark desert varnish. Upstream, near the basement, a terrace consists of a thick sequence of coarse gravels and downtream mainly of fine sediments. There are generally several stepped alluvial terraces, the oldest characterized by coarse pebbles and a very dark patina, the youngest by a sandy to gravelly material and a lighter color. Relatively coarse windblown sands often occur in the upstream part of the coastal plain. Dating the fluvial terraces is rather difficult, but relative dating is sometimes possible. Between Umm Lajj and Yanbu, the basalts from the Jabal Nabah, K/Ar dated 1.4 ± 0.6 My, flowed into wadis that were already cut into the oldest terrace, which might be Lower Quaternary or Upper Pliocene and show evidence of vertical block movements; the formation of the middle terrace antidates the Umm Lajj basalts (0.4 ± 0.2 My). The age of the youngest gravel terrace can be estimated, due thanks to its direct connection to the 6–8 m marine terrace, which belongs to the last interglacial (Hötzl et al. 1984).

Ancient coral reefs outcrop in the lower part of the coastal plain, in places slightly covered with gravels. The main reef body, very flat, is the 6–8 m marine terrace. Toward the sea, the main reef itself outcrops and, behind it, increasingly lagoonal facies. This ancient reef can be attributed to the last interglacial (isotopic stage 5e) and exhibits no real deformation. An older one, faulted, is probably 250 ky old (isotopic stage 7). A Holocene erosion step at 1–2 m above m.s.l., only a few meters wide, is carved into the edges of the 6–8 m reef, even on its landward side. The reef terraces form striking isolated erosional remnants and more or less broad table-like crests. Depressions and channels developed behind the reefs, which, subsequently, were sometimes occupied by bays (Sharm) when the sea level rose later. The best example is Sharm Yanbu with its narrow deep channel and its two branches representing the continuation of two wadi channels. The protective reef plate kept this crest from being eroded, while the loose material behind it was excavated. Such back-coast depressions recur repeatedly. These bays are the result of the last drop in sea level in the latest Pleistocene and the later increase in the Holocene. On the eastern edge of the reef crest, an inter-fingering of coral and beach formations with clastic continental sediments can often be seen. This interfinger-ing points to the existence of a humid climate during the interglacial period. Carbon-14 dated remnants of trees indicate heavier-than-today precipitation during the so-called “Neolithic Pluvial” (Fig. 6).

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are mainly of the fringing type; fringing reefs in a very nearshore position in front of steep cliffs, or fringing reefs with a lagoon within shallow water. They grow close to the mainland and are absent from wadi mouths. Barrier reefs and even atolls also occur, mainly in the central and southern part of the Red Sea. The outlines of the reef crest and the orientation of the foreslopes follow the tectonic pattern. Spectacular drop-offs are widespread and represent predominantly horst and graben structures parallel to the rift.

In the Aqaba Gulf, the fringing reefs exhibit a characteristic biozona-tion (Dullo and Montaggioni 1998): (1) a local and poorly developed beach; (2) the back-reef zone, a sandy depression between the beach and the reef-flat, with a maximum width of 50 m and a depth of 1–2 m, the bottom sediment is colonized by scattered coral heads (Stylophora, Serkitopom, Platygyra, Mittepora), alcyonarian colonies (Lithophyton, Cladiella, Sinularid) and seagrass beds (Halophila, Halodule); (3) the reef-flat zone, about 20 m wide, this is a dead coral pavement bordered by a 1 m rear-reef step. Coral communities are composed of small-sized colonies (Stylophora, Seriatopom, Acropord) associated with hydroco-rals (Mittepora). The reef front forms a nearly vertical drop-off, 2^1 m high, with Mittepora and branching red algae; (4) the outer slope zone, with loose sedimentary slopes (sandy talus and patches of Halophila) or coral-reef slopes, with their upper parts dominated by branching growth forms (Stylophora, Seriatopora, Acropora, Echinopord). Along the coast of Arabia, the fringing reef constitutes an almost continuous belt and often has wide back-reef zones.

On the central and southern coast of Arabia, coral reefs also occur as offshore knoll reef platforms. In the vicinity of Jeddah, about 3 km west of the coastline, the offshore reef consists of a shallow platform covering an area of 800 km2, bounded both shorewards and seawards by a vertical escarpment dropping rapidly to depths of 400–800 m, marking the edge of the Red Sea trough. The platform is occupied by scattered reefs separating sandy bottoms. The present reefs come from Holocene reefs settled on Pleistocene reef limestones. The coral community of the innermost part is dominated by Stylophora pistillata. Coralline algae are represented by massive branching and crustose forms (Lithothamnium, Spongites). The upper parts of the steeply reef flanks are settled by Millopora.

In the southern part of the Red Sea, where the sea reaches its maximum width of 360 km, remarkably flat shoals (called shab) occur. The best example is the Farasan bank which extends from 16°N to 22°N. Lat. and reaches a width of up to 120 km. The sea is almost always less than 100 m deep and often only a few meters deep. The two main islands, which were very important for pearling at the beginning of the twentieth century, are 60 km long and 8 km wide (al Kabir) and 35 km long and 10 km wide (Sajid). These islands are flat and low (under 20 m), except in a very few places where heights of up to 75 m are to be found, in domed eminences where gypsum and anhydrite outcrop as a result of halokinesis (Dabbagh et al. 1984).

Regional Features

The Gulf of Aqaba is the continuation of the Red Sea rift, formed as a consequence of transform movements along the Aqaba-Levant structure. This narrow gulf slopes steeply to depths of over 1800 m. In the north of the Red Sea, the coastline is very straight, free from larger indentations, with a trend of 140/150°, identical to that of the entire graben. Sigmoid curves are typical of the central and southern parts of the Red Sea coast. The 200 m isobath shows significant deviations. It is seldom parallel to the coast, underwater ridges, and troughs repeatedly show the conjugated 70° course indicated by transform faults. The main wadis are generally related to young NE striking faults and block-faults (Fig. 7).

The Wadi al Hamdh, with a catchment extending almost to al Madinah, is the most important drainage system in the Hejaz Mountains. Its load of sediment considerably contributed to the creation of a broad aggradation plain south of al Wajh. Even under the present arid conditions, its water, enriched with mud and rubble, regularly reaches the coastal plain, and sometimes the sea. A continuous reef belt has developed some 30 km away from the coast (Al-Sayari et al. 1984).

Because of a wide break in the recent coral reef along the coast, Jeddah is one of the few places on the Red Sea coast where a large harbor could be located. Isobaths show an E-W channel from Wadi Fatimah into the Red Sea. The upper course of Wadi Fatimah extends into the massive basalt flows of the Harrat Rahat and the remaining catchment is made up mainly of Precambrian rocks. The middle course of Wadi Fatimah is to be considered as a fault-bounded graben. The presence of plutonic and metamorphic rocks limits the potential aquifers to the alluvions of the Wadi Fatimah which is an early source of water for the Jeddah city, as the ruins of a qanat(conduit) system show (Hacker et al. 1984).

The plain of Jizan forms a narrow NW-oriented coastal strip. The strongly dissected Asir and Yemen high mountains overlook the whole area. At their base, parallel foothills, consisting of metamorphic schists or volcanic rocks reach heights of between 200 and 700 m. The plain itself averages about 40 km in width and is composed of alluvial deposits, except for some volcanic cones and the salt dome (diapir) of Jizan (Müller 1984). Several important intermittent wadis flow across the plain, fed by the summer and spring rain falling in the mountains, but only their upper courses are perennial. Many volcanic intrusions, which occurred during the development of the Red Sea rift, are characteristic of the plain. Given the good state of preservation of some cinder cones, volcanic activity has continued up to recent geologic times. The coast is preceded by a reef over almost its entire length. Immediately adjacent to the coast is a sabkhah zone, some kilometers wide, consisting of silty, clayey sediments with high salt content. On its eastern border, this zone passes into the alluvial accumulation of the middle terrace (Purser and Bosence 1998).

The Persian Gulf Coast

Hydrology, Climate, and Structure

The Persian Gulf has an average depth of 35 m and a maximum depth of 100 m near its narrow entrance, the Strait of Hormuz, 60 km wide. Tidal range varies from 1 m at Dubai, 2.5 m at Bahrain, and 3.5 m at Kuwait to a maximum of 5 m in the Clarence Strait, between Qeshm Island and the mainland, and the tidal range averages ca. 1 m at Basra, 150 km upstream on the Shatt al Arab. Regional tidal currents are oriented approximately parallel to the axis of the Gulf. Tidal velocity may exceed 60 cm/s, their bidirectional movements favoring the development of spectacular oolitic tidal deltas (Purser and Seibold 1973).

The considerable loss of water in the Gulf through evaporation is not compensated by precipitation and river inflow, the only notable inflow of fresh water coming from the Shatt al Arab, in fact mainly from the Karun (ca. 6000 m3/s). As a result, compensatory waters come from the Arabian Sea, with surface current moving anticlockwise along the Iranian coast and coming down the Arabian coast, determining the distribution of salinity, temperatures, and nutrients. In summer, surface water attains temperatures over 32 °C in the central part but very much higher in the Arabian lagoons. Temperatures in winter fall below 20 °C in the northern part of the Gulf and even under 18 °C north of Bahrain, where corals and mangrove cannot live (the absolute minimum is −5 °C at Abadan). The range of variation in water temperature tends to increase away from the entrance of the Persian Gulf. The salinity of surface waters is high along the northern Iranian coast (39‰ − 40‰) but diminishes down to 30‰ west of the mouth of the Shatt al Arab, increasing then to the south along the Arabian coast (more than 38‰ east of Qatar and even 60‰ in the Gulf of Salwa) (Fig. 8).

The climate of the Persian Gulf area is hot and semiarid to arid. Mean monthly temperatures increase from 14 °C at Kuwait to 18 °C at Abu Dhabi in January and stand ca. 34 °C in July all along the Arabian coast. Extreme temperatures are cool in winter and torrid in summer, the maximum absolute temperature reaches 49.2 °C at Sharjah and 52 °C at Abqaiq. Mean annual rainfall is less than 100 mm on the Arabian coast, slightly higher on the Lower Mesopotamian Plain and on the Iranian coast (ranging from 100 to 200 mm with a maximum of 230 mm at Bushire), rains occurring mainly in winter with a second peak in spring. The prevailing “Shamal” wind blows down the axis of the Gulf from the NW, then from the north to the south. Summer months are essentially calm, but during the winter the Shamal may be very strong. Mangrove stands are found at intervals along the Persian Gulf and Avicennia is the single species because it is the most resistant to low and high temperatures and to an intense evaporation resulting in high soil salinities. The northernmost site is in Bahrain and the greatest areas occur in the United Arab Emirates and in the Clarence Strait, in Iran, but the mangrove environment was richer and more extensive during the Middle Holocene and Terebralia palustris, frequent at that time, is now extinct (Glover 1998).

The small but numerous streams draining the Zagros ranges are characterized by rough flash-floods and deliver a significant amount of terrigenous sediments. In contrast, the Arabian side of the basin is completely lacking in fluviatile influx so almost pure carbonate sediments predominate along the Arabian coastline. Oolitic sediments are forming both in exposed and sheltered environments and are particularly abundant in the southern part of the Gulf.

From the peak of the last glaciation until about 14,000 year. bp, the Gulf was free of marine influence. By 14,000 year. BP the Strait of Hormuz had opened up as a narrow waterway and by about 12,500 year. ago marine incursion into the central basin had started. The present coastline was reached shortly before 6000 year. BP but the relative sea level then rose 1–2 m above its present level (Lambeck 1996).

The difference in slope between the two flanks of the Gulf reflects the fundamentally different tectonic histories of Iran and Arabia. Its elongate axis separates two distinct geological provinces, the stable Arabian foreland and the unstable Iranian fold belt. The foundations of the modern Persian Gulf were largely laid in the Plio-Pleistocene Zagros orogeny.

The collision of the Arabian and Euro-Asian plates resulted in the formation both of a broad structural depression, about 2000 km long, which extended from Syria to Hormuz and which eventually became an extensive sedimentary basin, and of the Zagros Mountains consisting in anticlines hugely folded with steeply dipping flanks, characterized by a NW-SE oriented belt, with mainly Late Cenozoic sedimentary formations in which clays, silts, and carbonates are predominant. The tectonic instability results in frequent earthquakes (Fig. 9).

The low-lying Arabian coast and adjacent shallow seafloor are characterized by large, low-dipping anticlines with N-S or NE-SW trends, for example, in Bahrain and Qatar. In the Persian Gulf there are some 20 islands, as well as numerous submarine highs or shoals. Most of the islands and submarine shoals are clearly due to salt diapirism which, affecting the early Palaeozoic Hormuz salt series, was very active during the Plio-Pleistocene period and down to recent times (Kassler 1973). The NW-SE Arabian coastline and the straight coastline from Abu Dhabi to Ras al-Khaimah may be partly controlled by faulting.

Regional Features

The Shatt al Arab deltaic system. The extreme north of the Gulf corresponds with the deltaic system of the Shatt al Arab, the combined delta of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Karun. At the latitude of Basra, the two wide alluvial fans of Wadi Batin (Pleistocene) and Karun River (Holocene) restrict the width of the Mesopotamian plain, being responsible for the upstream development of extensive palustrine environments (Hammar Lake and marshes), where the Euphrates and Tigris deliver most of their water and suspended sediment. After loss of their suspended sediment in the marshes and shallow lakes, the clear waters are drained to the Shatt al Arab (Purser et al. 1982). In fact, much of the fluviatile waters and suspended sediment of the Shatt al Arab come from the Karun River. South of the two big alluvial fans, the Shatt al Arab forms a major deltaic system, dominated by strong tidal conditions, with large sebkhas flanking the waterways, wide tidal areas, sebkhas, marshes, and islands (such as the large Bubiyan Island). During the latter period of the flooding of the Gulf, in the mid-Holocene, much of these areas was likely to have been a shallow marine- lagoonal environment when sea level rose 1 or 2 m above its present level (Sanlaville 1989, 2000).

The Arabian coast is low-lying, with only a slight relief corresponding to the broad gentle anticlines that trend N-S or NE-SW. South of the large Bay of Kuwait and down to the Gulf of Bahrain, the coast is low and almost rectilinear, with rocky promontories, wide sandy beaches, and extensive silted swamps. The sandy point of Ras Tanurah extends SSE for about 10 km. The Dammam Peninsula is related to an Eocene limestone anticline, as is Bahrain Island, rising to 122 m at Jabal Dukhan. The Gulf of Bahrain between Bahrain and the mainland is very shallow with extensive submerged spits and bars separated by long channels, while the Bahrain archipelago is surrounded by wide, partly coralline tidal flats, which are largely exposed at low tide. Near Bu Ashira, in Bahrain, a mangrove swamp is formed of thick but not very deep mud and small mangrove bushes where the fauna consists mostly of gastropods, especially of the Potamididae and Planaxidae families (Smythe 1972). In the Qatar Peninsula, Eocene dolomite and limestone form massive and continuous outcrops forming cliffs separated from the sea by a strip of sebkhas, several kilometers wide. At the maximum of the Holocene transgression, the cliffs constituted an irregular coastline. After stabilization of the present sea level, fine sediment began to fill and regularize the embayments, creating hook-shaped spits at their southern ends and wide supratidal flats eventually formed on a complicated tidal channel system. Today, unusually strong easterly winds combine with high spring tides to flood the sebkhas as far inland as the ancient cliff. After a few weeks, evaporation of the flood water produces crusts of salt, gypsum, and dried algal mats which are progressively blown away (Shinn 1973).

Most of the beaches are composed of carbonate sand and the bulk of this material is of biological origin, made up of small fragments of shells and corals. This beach complex includes subtidal and supratidal zones. On the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, tidal flats occupy 30–40% in space of the numerous large or small bays along the coastline. They consist of mud and very fine sand deposited in bays and sheltered zones where wave energy is low and also of rock flats composed of mud. Sands, and shell fragments cemented into beachrock known locally as farush (Basson et al. 1977).

The mud flats generally consist of very fine, silty sediments which can be divided into several zones:
  1. 1.

    The marsh grass zone with plants such as Phragmites communis, Aeluropus lagopoides, Bienertia cycloptera.

  2. 2.

    The halophyte zone covered at high tide by only a few centimeters of water. It is the uppermost portion of the true intertidal region covered with Arthrocnemon macrostachyum and Halocnemon strobilaceum, with a far-stretching root system. In the mud surface there are sometimes to be seen the round holes of the crab Cleistoma dotilliforme.

  3. 3.

    The mangrove zone with A. marina, with trees 1 or 2 m high, with their characteristic pneumatophores.

  4. 4.

    The algal mat zone composed of cemented sediment with blue-green algae and diatoms. Microscopic animals live in this mat, including gastropods, ostracods, nematods, fiatworms, copepods, and oligochaete worms.

  5. 5.

    The Macrophtalmus zone between the mangrove zone and the lowtide level. These crabs (Macrophtalmus depressus and Macrophtalmus grandidieri) live in a burrow in the mud.

  6. 6.

    The Cerithidae zone whose density can reach 2100 individuals per square meter, with sometimes Murex kuesterianus.

  7. 7.

    Tidal creeks or drainage channels, dug by ebb tide, are a characteristic feature of the muddy tidal flats, with the presence of tide pools, about 2 or 3 m wide, 50 cm deep, and 10–30 m long, subject to great fluctuations of temperature and salinity. These tidal creeks are inhabited by a great variety of animals (shrimps, fishes, swimming crabs), which find there a shelter from the predators and rich food.

  8. 8.

    The sand flats frequently have a grayish color due to the presence of organic matter. At low tide, one can observe ripple marks produced by the ebbing water. Often, sands constitute a pellicular layer overlying the rock or a beach rock. The tidal channels are not strongly marked in that zone, where many crabs live, such as Ocypode saratan, M. depressus, M. grandidieri Scopimera scabricauda.

  9. 9.

    Rock flats also exist, for example, in the Gulf of Salwah, in bays where beach rock find exceptional conditions of formation. The farush consists of broken shells, sand, and mud cemented together. This type of environment presents very great biodiversity with polychaete worms, gastropods (Thais sp., Monilea sp., Trochus sp., Littorina sp.) pelecypods (Pinctada sp., Isognomon sp., Anomia sp., Barabatia sp.) and decapod Crustacea (Alpheus sp., Pilumnus sp., Xantho sp.), and also algae such as Enteromorpha sp., Rhizoclonium kochianum, Achnanthes sp.


Middle Holocene beach sediments are to be found 1 or 2 m above the present sea level, indicating a higher sea level than today. Pleistocene marine calcarenites are also known in that area where some paleo-wadis (W. Ar Rimah, W. As Sahba, and W. Ad Dawasir) have built gravel fans of enormous size.

The relatively linear character of the northern Arabian coast is modified by the Qatar Peninsula which strongly influences the marine currents and patterns of sedimentation on the SE side of the Persian Gulf. To the east of the Qatar Peninsula there is a broad, shallow area, 10–20 m deep, studded with numerous shoals and salt dome islands. An irregular bathymetrie ridge, the Great Pearl Bank Barrier, extends eastwards from Qatar along the central part of the United Arab Emirates coast, whose coastline is characterized mainly by low, evaporitic, supratidal flats, which locally attain 10 km in width, and by storm beaches in more exposed settings.

The western and central parts of the Trucial coast are protected laterally by Qatar Peninsula and the Great Pearl Bank barrier. The coastline is characterized by a complex of islands and peninsulas. Each island is growing by accretion around a Pleistocene rock core. Accretion also occurs as tails of sediments, which locally form tombolos. The inter-island channels end seawards in spectacular oolite deltas. Small swamps, colonized by the black mangrove A. marina and other halo-phytic plants, have developed, favoring the deposition of carbonate muds. The shallowness of the lagoons, together with the protection provided by the coastal barrier complex has led to a very active intertidal flat accretion which has produced the wide sabkhah plain, approximately 5 km wide, during the last 4000 years. The high salinity and temperature of the water, together with the extreme aridity, have led to the extensive development of dolomite and other evaporite minerals (mainly gypsum and anhydrite) within the supratidal sediments (Evans et al. 1969; Purser and Evans 1973). As the lagoons become completely filled, aeolian coastal sands may transgress over them.

The northern part of the coast is unprotected and direcly faces the entire length of the Gulf. It suffers from the effects of maximum wave fetch and a strong eastward longshore transport, which resulted in the development of storm beaches backed by coastal dunes mainly composed of skeletal carbonate sands, and the construction of major spit systems; between Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah, a series of subparallel spits has prograded the coastline some 5–10 km seaward, bringing vast lagoons into existence, the biggest being the Umm al Qowayn lagoon, which shelters vast mangroves. Further inland, the extensive quartzose dune fields of the Arabian desert extend up to the alluvial fans which skirt the Oman mountains. The NE section of the Trucial coast end in the cliffs and rocky shorelines of the Musandam Peninsula. They are mainly composed of limestone and are drained by a series of deeply incised wadis which terminate in spectacular alluvial fans, some of which reaching the coast.

The northern Persian Gulf coast is mountainous, with ridges up to 1500 m high formed by hugely folded, anticlines but the intensity of the folding diminishes markedly seawards where Pliocene folding produced regularly spaced elongate synclines and anticlines. In the south many anticlines are cut by salt diapirs. The chain of islands in the Gulf (Kharg, Shuaib, Qeshm, etc.) forms part of the Zagros foothill belt. The Zagros is seismically active, earthquakes are quite frequent and much detrital sediment is deposited in the form of alluvial fans delivered through short, ephemeral streams perpendicular to the main structural axis.

North of Bushehr, the coast is at first swampy, then low and sandy. South of Bushehr, the Iranian shores are essentially linear and rocky, the mountains rising abruptly above the sea, with narrow coastal plains associated with the estuaries of numerous small rivers flowing down the Zagros mountains. The coastal valleys yield evidence of two distinct fills separated by a phase of incision. According to artifacts, the deposition of the older ceased by 6000 BC. The process of the younger began about 1250 years ago. Most of the streams are now incising their channels (Vita-Finzi 1978).

The Mehran River, oriented parallel to the Gulf, is situated along the axis of a syncline and has developed a big marine alluvial-fan delta, pro-grading into the Clarence Strait, between the mainland and Qeshm Island. Its very flat fan is dominated by silty and sandy deposits covered upstream by scattered vegetation of Chenopodiaceae and Graminae. Downstream there are mud banks with large desiccation polygons, the shores of the strait and of the smallest tidal creeks being populated by a dense belt of mangroves (Avicennia). The mud banks area, 15 km wide, includes a series of extensive, mostly bare tidal flats with a characteristic network of tidal channels (Baltzer and Purser 1990).

The Persian Gulf area is the foremost producer and exporter of oil in the world and is now experiencing huge transformations. The landscapes have been strongly altered by the creation of harbors, channels, and artificial islands, the filling of lagoons and bays, and the construction of roads and towns. Oil pollution is a great danger and the equilibrium of the sandy shores is threatened.

The Arabian Sea Coasts

Climate and Hydrology

The coastline of the Arabian Sea, along the southern coast of Arabia, the Gulf of Oman and the Iranian Makran, is very hot and arid. Mean temperature in January is >20 °C (22.8 °C at Salalah and 25.6 °C at Aden) and the maximum absolute temperature in August is >45 °C (46.7 °C at Mascate and 47.2 °C at Masirah). Mean annual rainfall is <100 mm (38 mm at Aden, 94 mm at Masirah) and the rainfall variability is extremely high. Winter is the main rainfall period, except on the coast of Hadramaut and Dhofar where rainfall occurs mainly in summer. Precipitation over the coastal area of Salalah is usually in the form of a fine drizzle with daily totals seldom exceeding 5 mm but the presence of fog (on average 54 days per year) has a marked effect on vegetation growth.

As a whole, the Arabian Sea is very deep with a rather narrow continental shelf. Coral reefs exist intermittently where the continental shelf is wider. The tidal range is generally between 2 and 4 m. All during the year, the coast is buffeted by the heavy Indian Ocean swell. Winds and currents are parallel to the coastline in accordance with the monsoon circulation. The NE monsoon begins in October but is mainly characteristic between November and March, with a maximum in December.

and January. Winds are moderate and the sea propitious to navigation. The SW monsoon is longer and stronger. It begins in April and is very strong from June to September. Then the sea is very rough and navigation is dangerous so the fishers do not leave the harbors. Strong southwesterly winds blow along the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, forcing the ocean surface in a northeasterly direction and causing a compensatory upwelling of cold subsurface water. Along the Dhofar coast, between Ras Fartak and Masirah, sea surface temperature can be up to 5 °C cooler than the ambient offshore values. These cold waters are rich in nutrients that trigger phytoplankton blooms and make for a great wealth of fish, 70% of the biological sediment is deposited during the summer monsoon months. Tropical storms and cyclones occur from time to time, almost entirely confined to May–June and October–November and cross the coast of Yemen and mainly Oman, generally between Salalah and Masirah, about once every 3 years. They occur more frequently along the Makran coast but are fewer in the Gulf of Oman. Well-developed mangrove stands are found at intervals along the Arabian Sea shore, mainly in the bays or lagoons.

Regional Features

The southern coast of Arabia is more than 2600 km long between the Bab el-Mandeb and Rass el-Hadd. It corresponds to a young rift border; its structure is very complex and the coast is often bordered with high mountains. Volcanic rocks outcrop here and there, particularly in the western part where they appear as islands and promontories, for instance in the Perim Island, at the entrance of the Red Sea, in the Aden district where extinct volcanoes are connected to the continent by tombolos, or in the Shuqra area. The Old Aden settled in a crater whose rim reaches the height of 551 m at the Jabal Shamsan. Narrow plains bordered by sandy beaches alternate with high rocky cliffs. At Ras Fartak, vertical cliffs reach up to 580 m high. About 450 km to the south, Socotra is a barren high (1519 m) island of limestone and granite, 112 km long and 15 km wide with generally steep coasts and reef-fringed promontories. In eastern Dhofar, the Kurya Muria archipelago is edged with fringing reefs. The eastern part of the southern Arabian coast is low, sandy, and barren, notably in the Wahiba Sands area, in Oman. This coastal area belongs to the Sudanian vegetation region, well differentiated from the adjacent Sahara-Arabian region by hundreds of genera and thousands of species that are not to be found in the Holoarctis, especially different species of Acacia, mainly Acacia tortilis, Capparis decidua, Calotropis procera, Panicum turgidum, Indigofera spinosa, etc. (Zohary 1973).

The Arabian coast of the Gulf of Oman, between Ras al-Hadd and the Strait of Hormuz, in the Musendam Peninsula, sweeps in an arc, some 650 km long, dominated by an isolated folded mountain range, the Jabal al-Hajar, whose highest point rises to 3035 m. At either end of this range the mountains plunge straight into the sea and the coast is rocky and cliffy, with deep water inlets. In the center of the arc the mountains are separated from the sea by the great Batina Plain, some 280 km long and 20–30 km wide. The coast is sandy with a strip of sand dunes. Behind it, the piedmont plain is covered with silts, gravels, and conglomerate laid down in a now semi-fossilized drainage system. During the Quaternary, the deposition of wadi sediments occurred during the interglacial pluvials, whereas erosional processes predominated during the cooler aridials and numerous sea-level terraces were formed during the interglacials; traces of three coastlines dating from the last interglacial can be found and the Holocene sea level was higher than the present one (Hanns 1998).

The Makran coast is part of an accretionary wedge of late Cretaceous to Holocene sediments which accumulated near an oceanic subduction margin, between two major strike-slip fault zone, the left-lateral Chaman fault zone to the east and, to the west, the right-lateral Zendan fault, which separates the simply folded Zagros Ranges from the turbidites and ophiolitic melanges of the Inner Makran.

The Makran ranges rise irregularly from the coastal plain in a series of ridges underlain by folded sedimentary rocks. Along the coast, outcrop mainly Pliocene thick, neritic, and monotonous sequences of calcareous mudstones (the so-called Chatti mudstones of Pakistan). They have been locally affected by gentle folding but the beds are often sufficiently unde-formed to produce extensive and almost horizontal platforms. So, the coast is marked by a series of prominent headlands (Konarak, Chah Bahar, Gavater, etc.) separated by low areas. These rocky headlands rise as isolated flat-topped hills formed from marine sandstone, conglomerate, and coquina of the Ormara and Jiwani Plio-Pleistocene formations. The Konarak terrace, one of the best developed, is an 18 km long and 300–900 m wide platform. Most of the scientists who investigated this area were strongly interested in these platforms which exhibit spectacular stepped shore platforms and raised beaches (Page et al. 1979; Snead 1993; Reyss et al. 1998). On Qeshm Island as many as 18 marine terraces were identified, up to 220 m in elevation, and as many as 19 levels, up to 246 m, near Chah Bahar. The lowest levels, less than 4 m high, were 14C dated as Holocene; for higher levels, up to 26 m in elevation. Uranium series analyses gave apparent ages between 100 and 140 ka bp, and therefore may be ascribed to oxygen-isotopic stage 5e (or 5c). These dates show that uplift rates did not exceed 0.2 mm/year during the late Quaternary, except in areas where salt domes exist, for example, on Qeshm Island where uplift rate was faster (6 mm/year). Deposits of the oldest levels are not suitable for dating because the shells and corals are very recrystallized. These marine terraces give evidence of the complex interrelationships of tectonism, coastal erosion and sedimentation, and eustatic sea-level changes (Reyss et al. 1998).

However, the main features of the coastal area could be the low-lying alluvial plains forming a coastal strip, 5 to more than 20 km wide, between the coastline and the mountains (Page et al. 1979). Several stepped terraces partly rocky and partly alluvial exist at the foot of the Makran ranges. The streams have eroded the siltstone and mudstone bedrock into low-lying pediments and built huge deltas. Locally, the plain is covered with sand dunes. Typical mud volcanoes outcrop as well in Makran as on the coastal plain of the Persian Gulf. In the coastal plain there are many shore deposits, series of prograding accretion beach ridges, isolating lagoons and marshes which shelter vast mangroves, before being filled by silt. In some places, ancient islands have been connected to the mainland by one or two spits which finally form a tombolo (Ras Tang, Konarak). So, the 19.3 km-long Gurdim terrace paralleling the coastline is connected with the coastal plain by a wide 12.8 km tombolo, displaying well-developed beach ridges. The Makran coast is unprotected and during the SW monsoon and especially in tropical storms and cyclones, the ocean and surf are extremely rough. Erosion continues to affect the headlands, but elsewhere progradation seems to have dominated along the flat sandy areas since the maximum of the postglacial transgression. Radiocarbon dates for shell samples collected in the central part of the tombolo of Konarak and elsewhere on the ancient beaches of the Makran coast gave ages between 4870 ± 100 year. BP and 6255 ± 320 year. BP (Page et al. 1979; Vita-Finzi 1981). The same observations were made on beach deposits of the Pakistan Makran (Sanlaville et al. 1991). So, in Makran the coastline has been prograding since the Middle Holocene owing to both slight uplift and marine or alluvial sedimentation.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Maison de l’Orient MéditerranéenLyonFrance
  2. 2.Centre de Paleontologie stratagraphique et PleoecologieVilleurbanne CedexFrance