Magazine article Oceanus


Magazine article Oceanus


Article excerpt

When my friends and family ask me what I am doing in my research, I respond that "I am investigating the winds and currents of the Red Sea in the Middle East." Scary faces pop up. All they see are the winds of wars--the ever-present terrorist attacks, fighting, and killings in the region. "Are you crazy?" they ask.

I get this same question (and sometimes the same reaction) from my oceanography colleagues. Since I began my postdoctoral research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, working with WHOI physical oceanographers Amy Bower and Tom Farrar, I have learned two things: first, that few people realize how beautiful the Middle East is, and second, that the seas there have fascinating and unusual characteristics and far-reaching impacts on life in and around them. These seas furnish moisture for the arid Middle Eastern atmosphere and allowed great civilizations to flourish thousands of years ago around these seas.

For an oceanographer like me, the Red Sea can be viewed as a mini-ocean, like a toy model ocean. Most of the features in a big ocean, such as the Atlantic, we can also find there.

But the Red Sea also has its own curious characteristics that are not seen in other oceans. It is extremely warm--temperatures in its surface waters reach more than 30[degrees] Celsius (86[degrees] Fahrenheit)--and water evaporates from it at a prodigious rate, making it extremely salty. It has odd circulation patterns--because of its narrow confines and constricted connection to the global ocean, and because it is subject to seasonal flip-flopping wind patterns governed by the monsoons. And its currents change in summer and winter.

The Red Sea is one of the few places on Earth that has what is known as a poleward-flowing eastern boundary current--so called because they hug the eastern side of ocean basins. They are not common, but the Red Sea Eastern Boundary Current is rarer still. Unlike all other eastern boundary currents, which head south in the Northern Hemisphere, it is the only one that flows in the direction of the North Pole.

Unraveling the intricate tapestry that creates this rare eastern boundary current in the Red Sea was a goal of my postdoctoral research. But I have found that the Red Sea is far more mesmerizing and complex than I initially imagined. The tapestry that produces the Red Sea's unusual oceanographic phenomena is woven from a variety of exotic threads: seasonal monsoons, desert sandstorms, wind jets through narrow mountain gaps, the Strait of Bab Al Mandeb that squeezes passage in and out of the sea--even locust swarms.

The politics of the nations surrounding the Red Sea are also complex and make it among the more difficult places to collect data. That explains why many Red Sea phenomena have remained unknown. But the least explored regions are the juiciest for scientists, because they are likely to be the ripest places to make new discoveries.

Gateway to the Red Sea

In the Red Sea, water evaporates at one of the highest rates in the world. You can think of it like a bathtub in a steam room--to keep the tub's water level stable, you would have to add water from the tap. Similarly, the Red Sea compensates for the large water volume it loses each year through evaporation by importing water from the Gulf of Aden--through the narrow Strait of Bab Al Mandeb between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea on the Horn of Africa.

The Strait of Bab Al Mandeb works as a gate. All waters in and out of the sea must pass through it. No other gates exist, making the Red Sea what is known as a semi-enclosed marginal sea.

In winter, incoming surface waters from the Gulf of Aden flow in a typical western boundary current, hugging the western side of the Red Sea along the coasts of Eritrea and Sudan. The current transports the waters northward. But in the central part of the Red Sea, this current veers sharply to the right. …

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