Aiding sustainable conservation of the Red Sea

May 07 2020

- KAUST News


KAUST Professor Daniele Daffonchio (pictured) noted that the Red Sea features more than 20 brine pools. File photo.


Scientists at KAUST have discovered a new brine pool in their quest to understand and conserve the Red Sea more effectively.

Brine pools are lakes of extremely salty water that sit on the sea floor at depths approaching 3,000 meters. These hyper-saline, deep sea lakes have been reported in other seas, including in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico, but they are particularly abundant and of notably large size in the Red Sea.

"The Red Sea is the one basin that hosts the most of these pools—more than 20," said Daniele Daffonchio, professor of bioscience in the University's Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering division. "Most of them are placed along the central axis of the sea, while this one is very peripheral, so it is close to the coast and—most importantly—it is the shallowest, with a depth of 400 meters."

The Red Sea (pictured, aerial view) has many brine pools, lakes of very salty water located on the sea floor at depths of around 3,000 meters. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

An important discovery


The newly discovered pool was named the Afifi pool after the eminent Red Sea geologist and KAUST Professor Abdulkader M. Afifi. The Afifi pool is the saltiest among all yet known in the Red Sea—about six times saltier than that of the surrounding sea water.

"It is a very important discovery because it facilitates the understanding of geochemistry and the unique microbiology of the organisms that live in these kinds of systems," Daffonchio explained. "[It gives] us a tool to better understand these extreme ecosystems, which have been compared to potential environments on extraterrestrial planets."

The pool's sheltered location near a series of coral reefs provided the calmer conditions necessary for the multidisciplinary KAUST team to take samples. A total of 23 Niskin bottles and an Idronaut® CTD, a cluster of sensors that measure conductivity, temperature and pressure, were used to measure the pool's temperature, salinity and pH.

The team's engineers and oceanographers then used state-of-the-art acoustic equipment on board the University's Research Vessel Thuwal to identify the system's acoustic signatures and characterize its physical profiling.

The University's Research Vessel Thuwal is an important tool used to investigate the Red Sea. Photo by Lilit Hovhannisyan.

Bringing it together through collaboration


Geologists, geochemists and ecologists from the team also determined the brine pool's origin; its chemical nature; potential organisms living inside it; and these organisms' interactions.

"We also have a team of microbiologists that helps in understanding which kind of microbes can live there—without oxygen—in the presence of such high salinity," Daffonchio said. 

Saudi Aramco was a key collaborator in the brine pool's discovery.

"The support of Aramco is very important for us because it has a long history in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the Red Sea," noted Daffonchio. "There are many mutual benefits. We can offer and propose expertise to help Aramco in [its] objective in the sustainable management of resources, and Aramco has an interest in learning and understanding the functioning of such systems."

"It is a very good collaboration between an academic institution and a large company, which is an important mission for the Kingdom," he continued. "It can help in preserving the Red Sea in a sustainable manner, including the coral reefs and the mangrove ecosystem."