The forest that grows in the warmest sea in the world

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Jubail Island, Abu Dhabi (CNN) — An intensely salty sea that warms to planet-beating temperatures at the height of summer is a hostile place for most plant life to survive.

Yet in one corner of Abu Dhabi, where brackish waters bathe the sun-scorched shore, there is a forest that not only survives, but thrives – creating a natural sanctuary for wildlife and an extraordinarily peaceful escape from the intense of the desert and the cities of the United Arab Emirates.

Jubail Mangrove Park is a green expanse of gray mangroves on the northeast edge of Al Jubail Island in Abu Dhabi, where shallow tidal waterways empty into the Arabian Sea from a clear blue.

Opened as a tourist attraction just before the pandemic, the park now has a beautiful wood-clad visitor center and a network of inviting boardwalks that weave through trees and over water , offering a close-up view of the flora and fauna of this magnificent place.

It’s a tranquil world away from the glittering skyscrapers and hustle and bustle of downtown Abu Dhabi, albeit just a short drive away. Visitors can spend hours here listening to the chirping of birds, the aquatic snap of jumping fish and the lapping of the waves.

“Being here is a healing process like yoga, especially at sunrise or sunset,” says Dickson Dulawen, a seasoned guide who regularly runs kayak or electric boat trips 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 relax.”

It’s not just humans who benefit from the restorative powers of mangroves. Scientists say hardy trees also help restore the planet, absorb and store carbon dioxide, encourage biodiversity and stay ahead of climate change.

dreamlike destination

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

Barry Neild/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 take place all day and sometimes at night, depending on the tides.

Leading the way through a man-made channel, Dulawen shows the throngs of tiny black crabs scurrying over the sandy beds around the base of the mangroves.

Plants have a symbiotic agreement with crustaceans, he explains. They nibble on discarded leaves and hide from predators in branches, while spreading seeds and breaking up dense salty sediment, allowing roots to grow.

These roots are something to behold. Gray mangroves send up a star-shaped network of cables or anchoring roots which then sprout their own mini-forest of tubes called pneumatophores, which grow above the water like snorkels, allowing the plant to breathe.

Pulling the kayaks onto a pristine sandy beach that only emerges at low tide – a picture-perfect desert island – Dulawen invites closer inspection of the mangrove leaves that appear to be sweating salt. This is part of the process that allows them to grow in seawater that would be toxic to other plants.

Dulawen points out a few other plants that form the local ecosystem. There’s the stubby, green salt marsh glasswort, similar to the plant often found as a cooking ingredient. He says the local Bedouins have traditionally used it as medicine to treat gassy camels or horses.

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

In the relentless heat of an Arabian summer afternoon, on the water, the mangroves should seem intolerable. Yet, with the warm tub waves splashing the kayaks as Dulawen gently tips a call of plants and creatures, a dreamlike quality hovers in the air.

Crab-eating plovers and green herons flap here and there among the trees, landing to stalk soft sediment. In the clear water, upside-down jellyfish can be seen drifting over the swaying seagrass. Dulawen says the turtles are frequent visitors.

Ecosystem Engineers

Abu Dhabi Mangroves

The gray roots of the mangrove sprout mini-forests of tubes that protrude from the water allowing the plant to breathe.

Barry Neild/CNN

The serenity of this corner of Abu Dhabi is partly due to the fact that it is forbidden for jet skis and pleasure boats that ply other areas of the coastline. Dulawen and his fellow guides help, diligently picking up stray trash and chasing away unwanted guests.

“There is no other place in the United Arab Emirates that can compare to here,” he says proudly. “The clarity of the water, the wilderness. 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 in Jubail but also in Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Mangrove Park. For every tree lost to development elsewhere, three more are planted.

It’s an environmental achievement, says John Burt, an associate professor of biology at New York University Abu Dhabi, who can sometimes be found paddleboarding in the emirate’s waters as part of of his team’s research to map the genetic data of the gray mangrove.

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

“They’re a diversity hotspot,” he says. Crabs are happy because of their mangrove business. The fish are happy because there is plenty of food to feed their young. Fishermen are happy because these youngsters grow up to be commercially important crops in deeper waters.

And the 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, we’ll see a lot of birds stopping 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 thanks to falling leaves.”

There is something else too. In our time of climate change, Abu Dhabi’s super-resilient mangroves could hold the key to predicting how the planet’s environments will adapt to global warming and rising seas, while helping to mitigate some of the causes.

They’re important as “blue carbon sinks,” a marine ecosystem that absorbs more carbon than it emits, Burt says.

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

“As long as you don’t disturb the area with development, that represents CO2 sequestration. That may have the ability to offset some of the contributions we put into the air for fossil fuel consumption.”

“So much green”

Abu Dhabi Mangroves

An observation tower offers magnificent sunsets over the dense forest.

Barry Neild/CNN

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

His team is studying specific genes in local plants that are associated with “environmental hardiness,” including resistance to salt and extremes of hot and cold temperatures.

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

Mangroves in other parts of the world may have the same tough genes as trees in Abu Dhabi just waiting to be woken up in the right environmental conditions. And seeing these genes in action in Abu Dhabi could be a good sign.

“It lets us know that there is hope for systems like this,” Burt says.

Back on dry land with Dulawen, it’s time to take a stroll on Jubail’s boardwalks as the sun sets in orange skies. It’s another peaceful experience, enhanced by an observation tower that offers views of the dense green canopy.

In the calm cool of the evening, a few couples and families enjoy the scenery, among them the visitor Balaji Krisna.

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

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