The forest growing in the world’s hottest sea

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Jubail Island, Abu Dhabi (CNN) — A highly saline sea that warms to planetary temperatures in the height of summer is a hostile place for most vegetation to survive.

Yet in one corner of Abu Dhabi, where saltwater flows down to the sun-baked coastline, there is a forest that not only survives, but thrives – creating a natural haven for wildlife and an extremely peaceful escape from the intensity of the desert and cities of the UAE.

Jubail Mangrove Park is a green expanse of gray mangroves on the northeastern tip of Abu Dhabi’s Al Jubail Island, where shallow tidal waterways spill into the clear blue Arabian Sea.

Opened as a tourist attraction just before the pandemic, the park now features a beautiful wood-paneled reception center and a network of inviting boardwalks that wind through the trees and over the water, offering up-close views of the flora and fauna of this stunning place.

It’s a tranquil world away from the glittering skyscrapers and heat-hazed bustle of central Abu Dhabi, albeit only a short drive away. Visitors can spend hours here listening to the chirping of birds, the splash of water of jumping fish and the lapping of waves.

“Being here is a healing process like yoga, especially at sunrise or sunset,” says Dixon Dulawen, a veteran guide who leads regular kayak or powerboat tours through the mangroves when the tides rise enough to allow small boats to venture into the heart of the forest.

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

It’s not just humans who benefit from the restorative powers of mangroves. Scientists say hardy trees also help restore the planet by absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, promoting biodiversity and staying one step ahead of climate change.

A dream destination

Mangroves of Abu Dhabi

Jubail Mangrove Park is an unexpected green escape from the deserts of Abu Dhabi.

Barry Nield/CNN

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

Leading out through a man-made channel, Dulauen points out the throngs of tiny black crabs that descend on the sand beds around the base of the mangroves.

The plants have a symbiotic deal with the crustaceans, he explains. They chew on discarded leaves and hide from predators in the branches, while dispersing seeds and breaking up the thick salty sediment, allowing root growth.

Those roots are something to behold. Gray mangroves send out a star-shaped network of cable or anchor roots that then sprout into their own mini-forest of tubes, known as pneumatophores, which rise above the water like snorkels, allowing the plant to breathe.

Pulling the kayaks up onto a pristine sandy beach that only appears at low tide – an ideal desert island – Dulawen invites a closer look at the mangrove fronds that seem to be sweating salt. This is part of the process that allows them to grow in seawater that would be toxic to other plants.

Dulauven points out some other plants that make up the local ecosystem. There is a green and thin salt marsh samphire like plant that is often found as a kitchen ingredient. He says the local Bedouin traditionally used it as a medicine to treat gassy camels or horses.

A yellow flower blooming on the roots of the samphire is desert hyacinth, a parasitic plant that is often harvested for medicinal purposes, including, Dulaven says, a natural alternative to Viagra.

In the relentless heat of an Arabian summer afternoon, out on the water, the mangroves must feel unbearable. Yet, with bath-warm waves lapping at the kayaks as Dulawen gently points out a named list of plants and creatures, there is something dreamy in the air.

Crustaceans and green herons splash here and there in the trees, perching to stalk through the soft sediment. In the clear water, upside down jellyfish can be seen floating above the swaying sea grass. Dulawen says turtles are frequent visitors.

Ecosystem Engineers

Mangroves of Abu Dhabi

Gray mangrove roots sprout mini-forests of tubes that rise above the water, allowing the plant to breathe.

Barry Nield/CNN

The tranquility of this corner of Abu Dhabi is partly due to the fact that it is off-limits to the jets and pleasure craft that buzz up and down other parts of the coast. Dulawen and his fellow guides help by diligently scooping up any stray trash and chasing away unwanted guests.

“There is no other place in the UAE that can compare to 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 in Jubail and the Eastern Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi. For every tree lost to development elsewhere, three more are planted.

It’s an environmental success story, says John Burt, an associate professor of biology at NYU Abu Dhabi who can sometimes be found paddleboarding the emirate’s waters as part of his team’s genetic mapping research. gray mangrove data.

He describes mangroves as “ecosystem engineers” that not only build their own habitats, but create the perfect environment for dozens of other species.

“They’re a hotspot for diversity,” he says. The crabs are happy because of their deal with the mangroves. The fish are happy because there is plenty of food to raise their young. Fishermen are happy because these young grow up to become important for the commercial harvest in deeper waters.

And the birds are happy.

“These mangroves are a migration route for many, many species of birds flying between Africa and Eurasia,” Burt says. “During the fall season, we’ll see a lot of birds stop to rest and feed in this area because it’s important not only for providing habitat, but also a ton of energy in the food web through leaf fall.”

There is one more thing. In our era of climate change, Abu Dhabi’s super-resilient mangroves may hold the key to predicting how the planet’s environment will adapt to global warming and rising seas, and help 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, Burt says.

“They suck CO2 out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and a lot of that energy goes into the root system,” he says. “And when they die … all the CO2 they took out of the atmosphere will stay there.

“As long as you don’t disturb the area with development, it’s CO2 capture. It may have the capacity to offset some of the contribution we put to the air from fossil fuel consumption.”

“So Much Green”

Mangroves of Abu Dhabi

An observation tower offers beautiful views of the sunset over the dense forest.

Barry Nield/CNN

And, says the professor, because they thrive in the unusually salty waters of coastal desert lagoons, which in winter can actually become uncomfortably cold for a typically tropical species, Abu Dhabi’s gray mangroves could point the way to the species’ survival elsewhere in the world.

His team looked at specific genes in native plants that are associated with “environmental resilience,” including tolerance to salt and extreme temperatures, both hot and cold.

“I think this will be useful information if you look at a place like Indonesia or Thailand and wonder what’s going to happen to adapt to climate change,” he says.

Mangroves in other parts of the world may have the same healthy genes as the trees in Abu Dhabi, just waiting to be awakened under the right environmental conditions. And seeing 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 to stroll around Jubail’s boardwalks as the sun sinks into the orange sky. It’s another peaceful experience, enhanced by an observation tower that offers views of the dense foliage.

In the calm cool of the evening, several couples and families enjoy the scenery, among them the visitor Balaji Krishna.

“If you want to go and mingle with nature, this is a good place 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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