A new study has found that rare deep-sea brine pools found in the Red Sea could provide clues to the region’s environmental upheavals that span millennia, and could even shed light on the origin of life on Earth.
Deep-sea salt pans are unusually saline or “hypersaline” lakes that form on the seafloor. They are among the most extreme conditions on Earth, but despite their exotic chemistry and a total lack of oxygen, these rare pools are teeming with life and can provide insight into how life began on Earth, and how life could have evolved and flourished on other water-rich worlds other than ours.
“Our current understanding is that life originated on Earth in the deep sea, almost certainly in anoxic – without oxygen – conditions,” study lead author Sam Purkis, professor and chair of the Department of Marine Geosciences at the University of Miami, told Live. The science. “Deep-sea salt pools are a great analogue of the early Earth and, despite being devoid of oxygen and hypersalt, are teeming with a rich community of so-called ‘extremophile’ microbes. Thus, studying this community provides a glimpse into the sort of conditions under which life first appeared on our planet, and may help in the search for life in other “water worlds” in our solar system and beyond.”
These pools could also lead to microbial discoveries that could fuel the development of new drugs, Purkis added.
“Molecules with antibacterial and anti-cancer properties have previously been isolated from deep-sea microbes living in salt pools,” he said.
Connected: Photo: 2300-year-old fortress discovered along the Red Sea
Scientists know of only a few dozen deep-sea brine pools around the world, ranging in size from a few thousand square feet to about one square mile (2.6 square kilometers). Only three bodies of water are known to contain deep brine pools: the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Red Sea.
The Red Sea has the largest number of deep brine basins known. They are believed to have resulted from the dissolution of pockets of minerals deposited during the Miocene epoch (approximately 23–5.3 million years ago), when sea levels in the region were lower than they are today.
So far, all known deep brine pools in the Red Sea have been located at least 15.5 miles (25 km) from the shore. Now scientists have discovered the first such pools in the Gulf of Aqaba, the northern pocket of the Red Sea, where submerged salt lakes lie just 2km from the shore.
The researchers discovered the pools during a 2020 expedition aboard the research vessel OceanXplorer of the maritime research organization OceanX. The expedition explored the Red Sea coast in Saudi Arabia, “an area that has received little attention so far,” Purkis said.
Using a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV), scientists discovered pools 1.1 miles (1.77 km) below the surface of the Red Sea, naming them the NEOM salt pools after Saudi developer company that funded the research. The largest pool was about 107,000 square feet (10,000 square meters) in diameter, while three smaller pools were less than 107 square feet (10 square meters) in diameter.
“At such great depths, there is usually not much life on the seafloor,” Purkis said. “However, salt pans are a rich oasis of life. Thick carpets of microbes support a diverse set of animals.”
Most interesting among them were “fish, shrimp and eels, which appear to use the brine to hunt,” Purkis said. The brine is devoid of oxygen, so “any animal caught in the brine is immediately stunned or killed,” he explained. He noted that predators that hide near the brine “feed on losers.”
The proximity of these basins to the coast means that they could accumulate runoff from land, including terrestrial minerals in their chemical composition. Thus, they have the potential to serve as unique archives that preserve traces of tsunamis, floods and earthquakes in the Gulf of Aqaba for thousands of years, Purkis said.
What happens in a salt basin, stays in a salt basin
Because the brine lacks oxygen, common animals that live on the sea floor and on the sea floor, such as burrowing shrimp, worms, and clams, are not allowed into the pool. “Normally, these animals bioturbate, or churn up the seafloor, disturbing the sediments that accumulate there,” Purkis said. “Not so with salt pools. Here, any sedimentary layers that settle to the bottom of the salt basin remain completely intact.”
The core samples that the researchers pulled from the newly discovered brine pools “provide a continuous record of past rainfall in the region dating back more than 1,000 years, as well as records of earthquakes and tsunamis,” Purkis said. Their findings show that over the past 1,000 years, major floods due to heavy rains “occur about once every 25 years, and tsunamis [take place] about once every 100 years.
These findings regarding the risk of tsunamis and other disasters could serve as “very important lessons for the massive infrastructure projects that are currently being built along the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba,” Purkis said. “While the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba has traditionally been sparsely populated, it is now urbanizing at an astonishing rate.”
Going forward, “we are committed to working with other countries bordering the Gulf of Aqaba to expand earthquake and tsunami risk assessment,” Purkis said. In addition, “we hope to return to the salt pans with better coring equipment to try and extend our reconstruction beyond 1,000 years, deeper into antiquity.”
The scientists detailed their findings online in a June 27 issue in the journal. Communications Earth and Environment (will open in a new tab).
Originally published on Live Science.
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