Shore Lines

Shore Lines

Paul visits a high-tech University in Saudi Arabia and meets with an oceanography researcher.


5 - 12


Social Studies, English Language Arts, Anthropology, Geography, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek


In Saudi Arabia, the hot days are of molten metal, and the humid nights are of damp black velvet.

We walk north through the desert near the Red Sea coast. We drip droplets of sweat into the sand. We take shade in the boiling hot afternoons beneath highway overpasses that are heavy with traffic.

We cross other shore-like borders. One of them is a high concrete wall above the fishing town of Thuwal.

Outside the wall, there are dusty HiLux pickup trucks bucking down lumpy streets, reef fish split and sun-dried in shop windows, and 870,000 square miles of Saudi Arabia. Inside the wall, there are 14 square miles of fountains and palms, DNA labs, and solar-powered buildings. Some of the buildings are covered in beautiful gleaming stone the color of seashells. Where there was once empty desert, there is a modern research center and a 21st-century campus. It took 40,000 workers 1,000 days to build it, toiling around the clock.

This is King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia’s shining example of learning, moderation, and modernization.

There is a digital library, a sailing club, a marine preserve, and a FedEx. They have one of the fastest supercomputers in the world, named Shaheen, the Persian word for peregrine falcon. Seven hundred graduate students from across the globe are part of the campus community. An outgoing director once worked with NASA. An incoming director is from CalTech. The university receives $20 billion in funding.

Male and female students are free to learn together here. This is the only public university in the nation where this is allowed. Women can also drive. They walk about in jeans and are not required to wear veils. There is a movie theater, which is banned elsewhere in Saudi Arabia to try to protect strict traditions. A member of a council of top religious scholars in Saudi Arabia criticized the opening of this extraordinary school in 2009. He said it was evil and sinful. He was fired within a week by King Abdullah. The king was in favor of reform and new ideas.

Another shore within a shore is the Red Sea Research Center on campus. Its associate director, Stein Kaartvedt, is a tall, balding Norseman. He is studying brine pools.

What is a brine pool?

The Red Sea is also a canyon. It is a part of the Great Rift Valley of Africa that happens to be underwater. At its greatest depths, below 6,000 feet, there is a lightless world. Within the darkness lie hidden “lakes” that are warmed by the heat within Earth. Their waters are dense and so salty that they do not mix with ordinary seawater.

These large underwater pools of salty brine can be 600 feet thick. At least 25 of them have been discovered. Altogether, they cover many square miles of the Red Sea floor. They can be five to ten times saltier than seawater. They are loaded with poisonous levels of metals such as iron, manganese, copper, and zinc. Gold and silver have also been found in the strange waters. (This interests mining companies.) The brine is the temperature of very hot tap water. Some of the toughest life-forms on the planet, known as extremophile bacteria, live there. Extremophiles can live in places where nothing else can survive.

Kaartvedt has filmed these lost worlds under the sea with a robotic submarine. He shows me on his computer. Where the regular seawater and the brine meet is weirdly visible. Agitated by propellers, the brine ripples like a windblown pond. He tried sending his submarine into the brine but couldn’t. The liquid was too dense. He has found dead sea life, like squid, mummified in the pools. These creatures are preserved like pickles. There is no telling how old they are.

“The largest brine lakes are subject to tidal forces, like all bodies of water,” Kaartvedt tells me. “I am interested in the biology of their shorelines. Yes, they have coasts that get covered and exposed by waves, too, just like the ordinary seaside.” He waves at the Red Sea shining outside his office windows. A shore within a shore within a shore. He grins happily at my obvious amazement.

It occurs to me that Stein Kaartvedt is the perfect man studying the perfect subject matter here at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. It is the zone of tides and change in Saudi Arabia.

At the campus gate, there are soldiers in uniform. I see bulletproof glass, badges, guns, all the symbols of a border, a hard shoreline. Before I clear security, the university’s media expert confesses that when she first heard I was coming, she knew I had to be an outsider and probably from the “developed” world. She is an intelligent, pleasant young Saudi woman. I was described to her as “some guy walking with camels from Africa.” She forgets that to be human is to be extremophile.

Media Credits

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Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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