In 2009, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) opened its doors on the Red Sea coast. The sprawling site is home to scientists from all over the world, with a focus on innovation and sustainability.
KAUST does not deal with departments, encourages academic cross-pollination and encourages a multidisciplinary approach to learning. It also works closely with national projects that form part of the Saudi Green Initiative, which aims to take action on the climate crisis. The smart health initiative supports international technology start-ups and partners with NEOM in the world’s largest coral garden. One is currently developing a vaccine in Boston to help fight coronaviruses.
In fourteen short years, the university made important strides. Those in the field of climate modeling, a field led by Professor Ibrahim Hoteit, are arguably the most impressive. Professor Hoteit, originally from Lebanon, comes from a family of scientists; After studying mathematics in Grenoble, he became interested in more practical applications of the subject – specifically how mathematics can help us better study and understand the ocean.
After completing his doctorate, he spent eight years as a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Since opening, he has been researching at KAUST to develop formulas that reconstruct the motions of the Red Sea over the past four decades, using complex Navier-Stokes equations that model fluid flow.
This study reveals how to best optimize the use of the Red Sea as a natural resource. It loses two meters of water a year due to evaporation, and the data collected at KAUST allows suppliers in the country to balance their reliance on hydraulic energy with the protection of the marine ecosystem.
The data also allows the supercomputing facilities at KAUST to prevent potential disasters. In 2019, the explosion of an Iranian oil tanker in the Red Sea caused a spill near Jeddah, just an hour from the university. Their latest technology has mapped exactly how the oil will spread (based on currents), allowing Saudi authorities to mitigate the damage by taking defensive measures. “I am proud of the unique modeling and forecasting system we have built and continue to develop,” says Professor Hoteit.
Global warming is a major concern for everyone at KAUST and especially for oceanographers. But there are promising findings in Professor Hoteit’s research. He suggests that while temperatures are rising in the Red Sea, what is affecting the rate is interesting.
The Red Sea is a maverick. The world’s northernmost tropical sea, its ecosystem is fed by nutrients mobilized from the ocean floor by seasonally changing currents by monsoon rains in the Indian Ocean. As the water approaches the surface, it cools. The deeper it goes, the hotter it gets. It is this contrast of hot and cold, and different types of plankton that thrive at alternating temperatures, that make up the unique richness of tropical seas and keep coral reefs blooming.
The volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 created a global haze that caused global temperatures to drop by as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius the following year. “Because our ocean mapping uses meteorological data on a global scale, we were able to identify a link between eruptions and what happened in the Red Sea,” says Professor Hoteit.
The technology at KAUST recreates the 1992 event in detail. “As the surface water cooled as a result of the global temperature drop, it condensed and sank,” explains Professor Hoteit. The cold water moved from the shallows to the deep. Experts say this is very important because the food intake of phytoplankton, which is the lifeblood of ocean food chains, is directly affected by water temperature.
Changes in temperature occur – with Professor Hoteit suggesting that “the phenomenon of his kind is important because it aerates and rehydrates deeper waters”. Research at KAUST points to a ten-year variation in the surface temperature of the Red Sea; The annual cycle in the North Atlantic known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). Professor Hoteit and his team suggest that the Red Sea will cool once again over the next decade before reaching new heights in the 2030s.
The Red Sea will warm in the long run, but the team led by Professor Hoteit believes that oscillations from one decade to the next bring a variable pace. There is hope among researchers that the Saudi Green Initiative can slow this increase with innovations such as carbon capture and various renewable projects along the coastline that help balance between humans and nature.