The forest growing in the world’s hottest sea
Jubail Island, Abu Dhabi (CNN) — An intensely salty sea which warms to planet-beating temperatures at the height of summer is a hostile place for most vegetation to survive.
Yet in one corner of Abu Dhabi, where briny waters lap sun-scorched shoreline, there’s a forest not only surviving, but thriving — creating a natural sanctuary for wildlife and an extraordinarily peaceful escape from the intensity of the UAE’s desert and cities.
Jubail Mangrove Park is a green expanse of gray mangrove trees on the northeastern edge of Abu Dhabi’s Al Jubail island, where shallow tidal waterways spill out into the clear blue Arabian Sea.
Opened as a tourist attraction just before the pandemic, the park now has a handsome wood-clad reception center and a network of inviting boardwalks that thread through the trees and over the water, offering close-up views of the flora and fauna of this stunning spot.
It’s a tranquil world away from the shimmering skyscrapers and heat-hazed hustle of downtown Abu Dhabi, albeit just a short drive away. Visitors can while away hours here, listening to the call of birds, the watery slap of leaping fish and the lapping of waves.
“Being here is a healing process like yoga, especially at sunrise or sunset,” says Dickson Dulawen, a veteran guide who leads regular kayak or electric boat tours of the mangroves when the tides rise high enough to let small boats venture into the heart of the forest.
“If you’ve had a very bad day, it’s a great place to relax.”
It’s not just humans who benefit from the restorative powers of the mangroves. Scientists say the hardy trees are also helping restore the planet, soaking up and storing away carbon dioxide, encouraging biodiversity and staying one step ahead of climate change.
The Jubail Mangrove Park is an unexpected green escape from the deserts of Abu Dhabi.
The best way to see the mangroves working their magic is on the water, following guides like Dulawen in one of Jubail’s brightly colored kayaks. Tours run through the day, and sometimes at night, depending on tides.
Leading the way out via a man-made channel, Dulawen points to the crowds of tiny black crabs that scuttle on the sandy beds around the base of the mangroves.
The plants have a symbiotic deal with the crustaceans, he explains. They munch on discarded leaves and hide from predators in the branches, while also spreading seeds and breaking up the dense salty sediment, enabling root growth.
Those roots are something to behold. Gray mangroves send out a star-shaped network of cable or anchor roots which then sprout their own mini-forest of tubes known as pneumatophores, which poke above the water like snorkels, allowing the plant to breathe.
Pulling the kayaks up onto a pristine sandy beach that only emerges at low tide — a perfect desert island — Dulawen invites closer inspection of mangrove leaves which appear to be sweating salt. It’s part of the process that allows them to grow in seawater that would be toxic to other plants.
Dulawen points out some other plants that form the local ecosystem. There’s green and stubby salt marsh samphire, similar to the plant often found as a kitchen ingredient. He says local Bedouins have traditionally used it as a medicine for treating gassy camels or horses.
A yellow flower blooming on the roots of the samphire is a desert hyacinth, a parasitic plant often harvested for medicinal uses including, says Dulawen, a natural alternative to Viagra.
In the unrelenting heat of an Arabian summer afternoon, out on the water, the mangroves should feel intolerable. Yet, with bathtub-warm waves splashing over the kayaks as Dulawen gently points out a roll call of plants and creatures, a dreamlike quality hangs in the air.
Crab plover birds and green herons flap here and there among the trees, landing to stalk across the soft sediment. In the clear water, upside-down jellyfish can be seen drifting over the swaying seagrass. Dulawen says turtles are frequent visitors.
The gray mangrove roots sprout mini-forests of tubes which poke above water allowing the plant to breathe.
The serenity of this corner of Abu Dhabi is partly down to the fact it’s off-limits to the jet skis and pleasure craft which buzz up and down other areas of coastline. Dulawen and his fellow guides help, assiduously scooping up any stray trash and chasing off unwanted guests.
“There’s no other place in the UAE that can compare to here,” he says proudly. “The clarity of water, the natural wildlife. It’s ideal.”
And it keeps getting better. Government and private planting programs have led to an expansion of mangrove areas in recent years, both at Jubail but also Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Mangrove Park. For every tree lost to development elsewhere, three more are planted.
This is an environmental success story, says John Burt, associate professor of biology at New York University Abu Dhabi, who can sometimes be found paddle boarding around the emirate’s waters as part of his team’s research to map the gray mangrove’s genetic data.
He describes the mangroves as “ecosystem engineers,” which not only build up their own habitats but create the perfect environment for scores of other species.
“They’re a hotspot for diversity,” he says. Crabs are happy because of their mangrove deal. Fish are happy because there’s plenty of food for nurturing their young. Fishers are happy because those young grow up to be commercially important harvests in deeper waters.
And birds are happy.
“These mangroves are on a migration route for many, many species of birds flying between Africa and Eurasia,” Burt says. “In the fall season we’ll see a lot of birds stopping to rest and feed in that area because it’s important not only for providing habitat, but also a ton of energy in the food web through dropping leaves.”
There’s something else too. In our era of climate change, Abu Dhabi’s super-resilient mangroves could hold the key to predicting how environments across the planet will adapt to global heating and rising seas, as well as helping alleviate some of the causes.
They’re important as a “blue carbon sink,” a marine ecosystem that takes in more carbon than it puts out, says Burt.
“They’re sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and a lot of that energy is going into the root system,” he says. “And when they die … all the CO2 it pulled out of the atmosphere will stay there.
“As long as you don’t disturb the area with development, that represents CO2 sequestration. It can have the capacity to offset some of the contributions we’re putting into the air for fossil fuel consumption.”
‘So much green’
A viewing tower offers beautiful sunset vistas over the dense forest.
And, the professor says, because they thrive in the abnormally salty waters of desert coastal lagoons that in winter can actually get uncomfortably cool for a typically tropical species, Abu Dhabi’s gray mangroves could point the way to species survival elsewhere in the world.
His team is looking at specific genes in the local plants that are associated with “environmental robustness” including resistance to salt and to extreme temperatures, both hot and cold.
“I think that’ll be useful information for looking at a place like Indonesia or Thailand and wondering what’s going to happen to adapt for climate change,” he says.
Mangroves in other parts of the world may have the same tough genes as Abu Dhabi’s trees just waiting to be awakened in the right environmental circumstances. And observing those genes in action in Abu Dhabi could be a good sign.
“It lets us know there’s hope for systems like this,” Burt says.
Back on terra firma with Dulawen, there’s time for a stroll around the Jubail boardwalks as the sun sinks into an orange sky. It’s another peaceful experience, enhanced by a viewing tower that offers vistas over the dense leafy canopy.
In the calm cool of the evening, a few couples and families are enjoying the scenery, among them visitor Balaji Krisna.
“If you want to go and mingle with nature it’s a good spot and not far away from the city,” he says. “It is the only place in Abu Dhabi where you can see so much green.”