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 days are of molten chrome, and the nights are of damp black velvet.

We walk north through the desert near the Red Sea coast. We drip traces of sweat into the sand. We take shade in the scalding afternoons beneath highway overpasses that moan with traffic. We cross other shore-like borders.

One of them is a high concrete wall jutting 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-sequencing labs, and solar-powered buildings. Some of the buildings are sheathed in beautiful gleaming stone the color of seashells. There is a state-of-the-art research center and a 21st-century campus built from empty desert. Toiling around the clock, 40,000 workers raised it from nothing in 1,000 days.,

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

There is a digital library, a yacht 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 form part of the campus community. An outgoing administrator once worked with NASA. An incoming administrator is coming from CalTech. The institution 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 permitted. Women can also drive. They walk about in jeans, unveiled. There is a cinema, which is banned elsewhere in Saudi Arabia to try to preserve strict traditions. A cleric on the Council of Senior Ulema, a body of top religious scholars in Saudi Arabia, condemned the opening of this extraordinary school in 2009 as evil and sinful. He was fired within a week by the reform-minded King Abdullah.

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

What is a brine pool?

The Red Sea is a canyon, an extension of the Great Rift Valley of Africa that happens to be submerged. At its greatest depths, in the lightless world below 6,000 feet, lie hidden “lakes” with waters warmed by the heat within Earth and highly compressed. The waters are so salty that they do not mix with ordinary seawater.

These large underwater pools of brine can be 600 feet thick. At least 25 of them have been discovered. Collectively, they cover many square miles of the Red Sea floor. They can be five to ten times saltier than seawater. They are loaded with toxic levels of metals such as iron, manganese, copper, and zinc. Gold and silver have welled up from thermal vents as well. (This has caught the interest of 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, reside there. Extremophiles can live in environments where little else can survive.

Kaartvedt has filmed these lost worlds under the sea with a robotic submarine. He shows me the footage on his computer: the interface between the two liquids, regular seawater and brine, is weirdly visible. Disturbed by propellers, the brine ripples like a windblown pond. He tried immersing his submarine into the brine but couldn’t. The liquid was too dense. He has found dead sea life, like squid, embalmed 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 and genuine 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 intertidal zone of change in Saudi Arabia.

At the campus gate, there are soldiers in uniform, 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, and may have thought of me as “some guy walking with camels from Africa.” She forgets: 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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