More than the Eye can Sea

Micrographs of representative diatom species. Photo credit: Dr. Colleen Durkin.

There's a gulf of knowledge on local waters that scientists are hoping to fill.

More is known about the oceans at the extremities of our globe, the Southern Ocean and the Arctic Circle, than is understood about one of the most dynamic bodies of water in the world: the Arabian Gulf.

Marine scientists gathered at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Gulf Marine Environment conference presented their findings on the Arabian Gulf and the challenges facing a little-known body of water that is responsible for sustaining marine life, providing the drinking water for the region, and driving the booming economies of the region.

Shady Amin, an assistant professor of biology, researches phytoplankton, a mysterious but essential, alien-like being that supports all aquatic life. These organisms are effectively simple plants that live in the ocean; their name, phytoplankton, is derived from two Greek words, phyto and planktos, which translates roughly to wandering plants.

“Most of what we think makes up our water is not these small and large sized fish. It’s mostly these small critters. To understand how to establish sustainable fisheries we have to understand what’s happening on the really, really small scale,” he told scientific colleagues at the Gulf Marine Environment conference at NYUAD. “When we look at the data, we find about half of all oxygen and energy produced on Earth comes from the sea, and specifically from these phytoplankton.”

There is still much to be understood about these foundational organisms, but scientists have observed that rising sea temperatures increase the global rate of algal blooms — a process whereby chemical or biological factors cause these phytoplankton, also known as microalgae, to reproduce rapidly.



“When we look at the data, we find about half of all oxygen and energy produced on Earth comes from the sea, and specifically from these phytoplankton.”



Shady Amin, assistant professor of biology

In many cases, these blooms occur naturally, happening in ebb and flow with the seasons. Regular algal blooms off the coast of Alaska have been observed for decades. They orchestrate a spur of growth in marine life that makes the Bering Sea one of the most productive in the ocean and one of the best places on earth for humans to watch whales. 

But in recent years, algal blooms are occurring with higher frequency and intensity because of imbalances in marine ecosystems resulting from the human-made destruction of our rapidly warming oceans.

Known as harmful algal blooms, or red tides, these unnatural phenomena are dangerous to all life that depends on phytoplankton, and they are often so large they can be seen from space. Scientists have observed harmful algal blooms causing the mass-death of fish, from lack of oxygen in the water, and can even contaminate fish and drinking water that millions of humans depend on, as they go to eat fish or drink water that has come into contact with these harmful algae or the toxins they produce.

The Arabian Gulf has either been relatively insulated from increasing blooms, either due to unknown scientific reasons or simply because these blooms occur unnoticed due to lack of resources in Arabian Gulf research at the regional level. The former reason draws the curiosity of scientists, but the latter is a sore spot for marine biologists looking to understand more.

Amin, however, predicts it’s only a matter of time before the region is hit with a large algal bloom. That reality is daunting and potentially threatening to millions of residents in the Arabian Gulf. A large bloom in 2008-2009 was so dangerous that it caused the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) governments to shutdown desalination plants, the source of more than 90 percent of the region’s water.

Amin and his colleagues aim to go deeper on these topics, to understand if there is some resilience to algal blooms in this region, as is the case with coral reefs and coral bleaching events. He said that part of the problem is a lack of research vessels — ships that conduct studies on the marine environment, and almost nonexistent time-series research that is able to continually collect data on the Arabian Gulf over prolonged periods of time to map trends and changes.

They have called for more collaboration to occur in the field, more data sharing among scientists and governmental agencies, and for attention to be directed toward the lack of research vessels and other scientific monitoring equipment that can collect high-quality data to form the basis of marine research in the region. The conference is aimed at garnering more interest in the topic and open up the possibility for collaboration.

By his estimate, only six or so research expeditions have been conducted in the Arabian Gulf. Long and careful examination through these research vessels and other scientific equipment can collect information on a wide range of indicators, from phytoplankton to sea temperature. That in turn, as part of the spirit of scientific research, can be made available for researchers in the region to process and analyze for conclusions.  

“This is a great opportunity for us to invest a lot of resources to try to understand this body of water because there’s a lot of interesting things we’ll find out and of course it has huge benefits to the UAE,” he said.