National Geographic

Shore Lines

Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, 22°20'37" N, 39°5'41" E

Days of molten chrome, nights of damp black velvet.

We walk north through the desert near the Red Sea coast. We drip asterisks of sweat into the sand. We take shade in the scalding afternoons beneath highway overpasses that moan with traffic. We cross other shores.

The shore of shade. Taking shelter beneath the highway. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The shore of shade. Taking shelter beneath the highway. Photograph by Paul Salopek

One of them is a high concrete wall jutting above the fishing town of Thuwal.

Outside: dusty HiLux pickup trucks bucking down lumpy streets, reef fish split and sun dried in shop windows, and 870,000 square miles of Saudi Arabia. Inside: 14 square miles of fountains and palms, DNA sequencing labs, solar-powered buildings, some of them sheathed in beautiful translucent stone the color of seashells—a state-of-the-art research center and 21st-century campus built from empty desert, from nothing, in 1,000 days by 40,000 workers toiling round-the-clock. A digital library. A yacht club. A marine preserve. A FedEx. One of the fastest supercomputers in the world, named Shaheen—the Persian word for Peregrine Falcon. Seven hundred graduate students from across the globe. An outgoing administrator with NASA on his CV. An incoming one from CalTech. An endowment of $20 billion.

This is King Abdulla University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia’s showcase of learning, moderation, and modernization.

Male and female students comingle freely here—the only public university in the nation where this is permitted. Women can also drive. They walk about in jeans, unveiled. There is a cinema. (Banned elsewhere in the conservative Kingdom). A cleric on the Council of Senior Ulema, a body of top religious scholars in Saudi Arabia, condemned the opening of this extraordinary school in 2009 as evil, as sinful. He was sacked within a week by the reform-minded King Abdulla.

Another shore within a shore: the Red Sea Research Center on campus. Its associate director, Stein Kaartvedt, a tall, balding Norseman, is studying brine pools.

Stein's world: the shore at the bottom of a sea. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Stein Kaartvedt’s world: the shore at the bottom of a sea. Photograph by Paul Salopek

What is a brine pool?

The Red Sea is a canyon, an extension of the Great Rift Valley of Africa that happens to be submerged. At its greatest depths, in the lightless world below 6,000 feet, lie hidden abyssal “lakes” of highly compressed, geothermally heated water, so hypersaline that they do not mix with ordinary seawater.

These underwater lenses of brine can be 600 feet thick. At least 25 of them have been discovered. Collectively, they cover square miles of the Red Sea floor. They can be five to ten times saltier than seawater. They are loaded with toxic levels of metals such as iron, manganese, copper, and zinc—but also gold and silver—that has welled up from thermal vents. (This has caught the interest of mining companies.) The brine is the temperature of very hot spigot water. Some of the toughest life forms on the planet—”extremophile” bacteria—reside there.

Photographed by a submersible, the otherworldly boundary between brine and seawater deep under the Red Sea. The brine lakes are denser and far saltier than seawater. Courtesy Hege Vestheim/KAUST

Photographed by a submersible, the otherworldly boundary between brine and seawater deep under the Red Sea. The brine lakes are denser and far saltier than seawater. Courtesy Hege Vestheim/KAUST

Kaartvedt has filmed these lost worlds under the sea with a robotic submersible. He shows me the footage on his computer: the interface between the two liquids—regular seawater and brine—is weirdly visible. Disturbed by propellers, the brine ripples like a windblown pond. He tried immersing his submarine into the brine but couldn’t. The liquid was too dense. He has found dead sea life—squid—embalmed in the pools. These creatures are pickled. There is no telling how old they are.

“The largest brine lakes are subject to tidal forces, like all bodies of water,” Kaartvedt tells me. “I am interested in the biology of their shorelines. Yes, they have coasts that get covered and exposed by waves, too, just like the ordinary seaside.” He waves at the Red Sea shining outside his office windows. A shore within a shore within a shore. He grins happily at my unfeigned amazement.

A brine lake "shore" under the Red Sea photographed by a submersible. The pale colors are mineral deposits such as sulphur. Courtesy Hege Vestheim/KAUST

A brine lake “shore” under the Red Sea. The pale colors are mineral deposits such as sulphur. Courtesy Hege Vestheim/KAUST

It occurs to me that Stein Kaartvedt is the perfect man studying the perfect subject matter here at King Abdulla University of Science and Technology—the intertidal zone of change in Saudi Arabia.

Before I clear security at the campus gate—soldiers in fatigues, bullet-proof glass, badges, guns, all the semiotics of a hard shoreline—the university’s media minder, an intelligent, pleasant young Saudi woman, confesses that when she first heard I was coming (“some guy walking with camels from Africa”), she knew I had to be an outsider, and probably from the “developed world.” She forgets: To be human is to be extremophile.

There are 22 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Keith Masterson
    August 2, 2013

    Absolutely brillant, I can’t begin to imagine the diversities of culture and nature that you are going to travel through. I have been with you since day one and I’m looking forward to being with you in 7 years time. All the best

    • Paul Salopek
      August 3, 2013

      Much appreciated, Keith

  2. yasnamacDonald
    August 2, 2013

    can’t say enough how wonderful it is to read your articles …..cant wait for the new ones coming up…we the readers learn soooo much by you guys that do all the work and enlighten us the thirsty readers….you have 7 more years ahead of you and we have 7 years of wonder to gobble up what you will deliver to us….amazing job….always loved National geographic the best there is…..happy years ahead…

  3. Greg J. Bennett
    August 2, 2013

    Paul, I read each new post with anticipation and relish. Came across a quote today and thought I would share.

    “Not all those who wander are lost.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

  4. Joe Durham
    August 2, 2013

    I like you description: “asterisks of sweat”

  5. Adam Jasmick Jr.
    August 3, 2013

    Paul,
    You focus on the past and present of your journey through the Middle East brings your readers into your journey. The photos you post are excellent additions to the narrative. Looking forward to your next post. Stay safe!

  6. Jerzy PL
    August 4, 2013

    Truly thought-provoking article. Thank You Paul. Saudi Arabia appears to me as land of contrasts to me. Looking forward to hearing more from You! Best regards from Poland and good luck on the miles to come. Middle-East will be the most dangerous part of the journey I presume.

  7. Gary Boivin
    August 4, 2013

    The plethora of both biological and ethical diversities in such a place must be astounding. Now, the main thrust of your amazing journey is becoming apparent. May your way remain safe.

  8. Darcy Brown
    August 5, 2013

    Your journey has kept my attention from beginning as I follow you.Unfortunate the balance of the kingdom does not have the freedoms the university you describe has.

  9. Taylor
    August 10, 2013

    Food and Drink, no matter how mundane?

  10. Jane Nordli Jessep
    August 12, 2013

    How many Americans would even believe this kind of institution exists in Saudi Arabia? It might be the kind of important story that needs to get out into the general population. No?

    • Paul Salopek
      August 13, 2013

      Yes, KAUST is a grand and intriguing experiment. Broadly speaking, the university also shows that when it comes to gender rights and relations, Saudi Arabia can be a place of bewildering extremes and complexity. The Kingdom is a nuanced and (slowly) changing human landscape that usually gets flattened, oversimplified, in much foreign reporting. There are cosmopolitan, educated Saudi women running flourishing businesses, for instance, just as their are conservative women’s groups advocating for the retention of laws that lock in male advantages in economic and legal arenas. Untangling this weave of personal, cultural, and religious factors in Saudi society can be daunting. Saudis themselves are debating these issues in public more than ever before. The stakes in this national conversation, when 51 percent of the population is under 25, are needless to say huge.

  11. HikerBob
    August 16, 2013

    What a grand university!

    Also: this posting is festooned with the best comments to date. I am beginning to look forward to the comments as well as the postings by Paul.

  12. richard l. knight
    August 22, 2013

    Paul–my wife and I love what you are doing and so admire for it all. We continue to wait for your book Mule Dairies to appear–but still no word. Is there a publication date yet? We stayed in Columbus, NM, across from the building you own, before retracing Aldo Leopold’s journey into the Rio Gavilan with John Hatch. We also stay at the Glenn’s J-A Ranch twice a year and bowboy with them. You almost finished your book there but plans changed. Be safe!! Rick and Heather Knight

  13. iole bada
    August 29, 2013

    It’s so refreshing to get an unbiased review of what you are observing. Keep on trekking I love it.

  14. Win Grace
    August 29, 2013

    Your description of the King Abdullah University is amazing! No wonder we are slipping behind in education in this country!

  15. Michael Garrison
    August 29, 2013

    I lived in Jeddah for several years, working as a technical adviser to the KSA government and on weekends SCUBA diving in waters not too far from the research lab. During 100-foot depth night dives, I had NO IDEA the hypersaline brine lenses existed in the most extreme depths of my Red Sea! “To be human is to be extremophile.” Floating 100 feet down with my dive light off, or just walking through the Bab al Yemeni district of Old Jeddah, I REALLY felt like an extremophile… and loving every minute of it! Thanks for that great line and for reminding me of one of my favorite “homes.”
    Mike Garrison
    Maui, Hawaii USA

    • Paul Salopek
      September 2, 2013

      Thanks, Mike. The Red Sea is strange in many ways. No permanent rivers debouch into it. It’s saltier than adjoining bodies of water (such as the Mediterranean). As a consequence, ships float a little higher on its surface. For a giant supertanker, for instance, this could mean its hull would bob three or four inches above its typical waterline. Steaming south, such a vessel would clear the Bab el Mandeb and then settle more deeply back into the less saline waves of the adjacent Indian Ocean.

  16. Win Grace
    September 9, 2013

    Your information on brine pools was fascinating! I learn something new everyday! Thanks again for this journey.

  17. Bluebearee
    December 3, 2013

    I’m hooked! I absolutely love these little snippets you are disseminating like mini NG articles each one. Brine pools? So thick the robot can’t penetrate? Who knew?

  18. José L. Mesa Gomez
    January 11, 2014

    gracias por todo sus sacrificios . espero poder comprar sus libros en españa

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