The forest growing in the world’s hottest sea

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Jubail Island, Abu Dhabi (CNN) — A highly saline ocean that warms to planet-warming temperatures at the height of summer is an inhospitable place for most plants to survive.

Yet in a corner of Abu Dhabi, where brackish waters lap the sun-scorched beaches, a forest not only survives, but thrives — creating a natural sanctuary for wildlife and an unusually peaceful escape from the intensity of the UAE’s deserts and cities.

Jubail Mangrove Park is a green area of ​​gray mangrove trees on the northeastern coast of Abu Dhabi’s Al Jubail Island, where shallow tidal waterways flow into the clear blue Arabian Sea.

Opened as a tourist attraction before the pandemic, the park now features a beautifully wooded welcome center and a network of inviting boardwalks that meander over trees and water, offering up-close views of this spectacular flora and fauna. the place

It’s a quiet world away from the glittering skyscrapers and heat-filled hustle and bustle of downtown Abu Dhabi, albeit just a short drive away. Visitors can while away the hours here listening to birds chirping, the watery splash of jumping fish and the lapping of waves.

“Coming here is a healing process like yoga, especially at sunrise or sunset,” says Dixon Dulavin, who leads regular kayak or electric boat tours of the mangroves, when the tide is high enough that small boats can enter the heart. Forest.

“If you’ve had a really bad day, it’s a great place to rest.”

Humans are not the only ones who benefit from the restorative powers of mangroves. Scientists say hardwood trees also help restore the planet, soak up and store carbon dioxide, encourage biodiversity and stay one step ahead of climate change.

A dream destination

Abu Dhabi Mangroves

Jubail Mangrove Park is an unexpected green oasis from Abu Dhabi’s desert.

Barry Nield/CNN

The best way to see the mangroves work their magic on the water is by following guides like Dulawen in one of Jubel’s brightly colored kayaks. Tours run throughout the day, and sometimes at night, depending on the tide.

Leading the way out through a man-made channel, Dulawen points out flocks of small black crabs that scurry on the sandy beds around the base of the mangroves.

He explains that plants have a symbiotic relationship with crustaceans. They sow on discarded leaves and hide from predators in branches, while dispersing seeds and breaking up dense saline sediments, enabling root growth.

It is something to look at originally. Gray mangroves send out a star-shaped network of cable or anchor roots that then grow their own mini-forest of tubes called pneumatophores, which protrude above the water like snorkels, allowing the plant to breathe.

Pulling a kayak onto a pristine sandy beach that emerges only at low tide — a perfect desert island — Dulawen invites closer inspection of mangrove leaves that seem to be sweetened with sweat. It’s part of the process that allows them to grow in seawater that would be toxic to other plants.

Dulawen points out some of the other plants that make up the local ecosystem. There are green and stubby salt marsh samphires, similar to plants that are often found as a kitchen ingredient. He says local Bedouins traditionally use it as medicine to treat gassy camels or horses.

The yellow flower that blooms on the root of the samphire is the desert hyacinth, a parasitic plant that is often harvested for medicinal uses, natural alternative to viagra Dulavin says.

In the unbearable heat of an Arabian summer afternoon, out of the water, the mangroves must feel unbearable. Yet, as bathtub-warm waves splash over the kayak, Dulavin gently points out the roll call of plants and creatures, a dreamlike quality hanging in the air.

Crab plover birds and green herons flutter here and there between the trees, perching on stems in the soft sediment. In clear water, upside-down jellyfish can be seen drifting over the waving sea grass. Dulawen says turtles are frequent visitors.

Ecosystem Engineers

The tranquility of this corner of Abu Dhabi is partly down to the fact that it is off limits to the jet skis and pleasure craft that buzz up and down other stretches of coastline. Dulawen and his fellow guides help out, scooping up any stray litter and chasing down unwanted guests.

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“There is no place in the UAE that can compare here,” he says proudly. “The clarity of the water, the natural wildlife. It’s ideal.”

And it keeps getting better. Government and private planting programs have led to the expansion of mangrove areas in recent years, both at Jubail and in Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Mangrove Park. For every tree lost to growth elsewhere, three more are planted.

It’s an environmental success story, says John Burt, associate professor of biology at New York University Abu Dhabi, who is sometimes found paddle boarding around the emirate’s waters as part of his team’s research to map the genetic data of gray mangroves.

He describes mangroves as “ecosystem engineers”, creating perfect environments not only for their own habitats but for other species.

“They are a hotspot for diversity,” he says. The crabs are happy because of their mangrove deal. The fish are happy because there is plenty of food to raise their young. Fishermen are happy as those young grow up to produce a commercially important harvest in deep water.

And the birds are happy.

“These mangroves are on the migration route for many species of birds that fly between Africa and Eurasia,” says Burt. “In the fall we’ll see a lot of birds stop resting and feeding in that area because it’s important not only for providing habitat, but also tons of energy in the food web through leaf drop.”

There is something else. In our era of climate change, Abu Dhabi’s ultra-resilient mangroves hold the key to predicting how climates across the planet will adapt to global warming and rising seas, as well as help address some of the causes.

Burt says it’s important as a “blue carbon sink,” a marine ecosystem that takes in more carbon than it puts out.

“They’re absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and a lot of that energy is going into the root system,” he says. “And when they die … all that CO2 pulled from the atmosphere will be there.

“As long as you don’t disturb the area with development, it represents CO2 sequestration. It may have the potential to offset some of the contribution we’re making to the air for fossil fuel use.”

‘so much green’

Abu Dhabi Mangroves

A viewing tower offers beautiful sunset views over the dense forest.

Barry Nield/CNN

And, the professor says, because they thrive in the unusually brackish waters of desert coastal lagoons that can get uncomfortably cold in winter for normally tropical species, Abu Dhabi’s gray mangroves may point the way for species to survive elsewhere in the world.

His team is looking at specific genes in native plants that are associated with “environmental robustness,” including resistance to salt and extreme temperatures, both hot and cold.

“I think it would be useful information to look at a place like Indonesia or Thailand and wonder what it would take to adapt to climate change,” he says.

Mangroves in other parts of the world may have the same tough genes as Abu Dhabi’s trees waiting to be awakened under the right environmental circumstances. And observing those genes in action in Abu Dhabi could be a good sign.

“It tells us there is hope for such systems,” Burt says.

Back on terra firma with Dulawen, it’s time to stroll around the Jubail Boardwalk as the sun sinks into the orange sky. It’s another peaceful experience, enhanced by the viewing tower that offers vistas over the dense leafy canopy.

In the quiet cool of the evening, a few couples and families are enjoying the view, including the visiting Balaji Krishna.

“It’s a good place if you want to blend in with nature and not far from the city,” he says. “This is the only place in Abu Dhabi where you can see so much greenery.”

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