Warming Red Sea waters pose threat to ecosystem

Egypt’s Red Sea has been warming since the mid-1990s, a phenomenon that could threaten its rich ecosystem, according to a recent study conducted by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

Satellite-derived sea surface temperatures (SST) and ground-based air temperatures taken by a KAUST research team reveal that the Red Sea witnessed an abrupt temperature increase in 1994, and a rise of 0.7C in the last decade.

While global oceanic warming is evident across most of the tropical seas, the Red Sea in particular appears to exceed average marine tropical temperatures, the study says. This rapid warming has alerted scientists to the need to understand its potential impact on the ecosystem of a sea that is largely under-researched.

“Countries haven’t made much effort to study the basin. The US Office of Naval Research was working on it in the 1990s, but they stopped, possibly for political reasons. There have not been many studies on the Red Sea until recently," said Ibrahim Hoteit, one of the lead investigators in the KAUST study.

“For climate studies we need historical data, which we don’t have. To overcome this we are doing circulation modeling of the last 50 to 100 years,” he said. A general circulation model is a mathematical model of the circulation of a planetary atmosphere or ocean that is widely applied for weather forecasting, understanding the climate and projecting climate change.

The SST data was collected between 1985 and 2007 from monthly measurements taken by the AVHRR Pathfinder V5 dataset, one of the most accurate and reliable datasets available for the region.

The study compared warming in the Red Sea with northern hemisphere temperatures acquired from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and the United Kingdom’s Met Office Hadley Centre to help determine whether the trend was regional or global. The data sets showed parallel trends.

The KAUST study was published in July by the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Another study on the impact of rising temperatures on coral growth in the central Red Sea, conducted by the USA’s Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and published in July 2010 by Science magazine, says that sea surface temperature across much of the tropics has increased by 0.4C to 1C since the mid-1970s. The Red Sea is the world’s northernmost tropical sea.

The major concern about these temperature increases is their potential impact on the Red Sea’s ecosystem, one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world and a big part of Egypt's tourist industry.

The Woods Hole study sounds the alarm that rising Red Sea surface temperatures have slowed the growth of healthy colonies of the coral species Diploastrea Heliopora by 30 percent since 1998. It warns that should sea temperatures continue to rise as expected the coral could cease growing altogether by 2070. According to the KAUST study, there is a need to further assess past biological data on coral and fisheries and closely monitor the relatively underexplored and fragile Red Sea.

KAUST’s Red Sea research center, which opened in 2007, is also looking at projection models for oil spills in the area and their potential impact on the environment.

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