At the Limits of the Red Sea - challenges of deep marine sciences


The Red Sea is a unique marine environment where we can study the formation of a new ocean basin, which is host to rare ecosystems due to its young and enclosed character and special environmental conditions. The deep Red Sea Rift is particularly interesting as the new oceanic crust is formed by volcanic activity along the entire basin, which, together with hydrothermal activity and the occurrence of brine pools, provides unique habitats. The Red Sea Rift is >1,000 m deep, far past the limits of scuba diving, and reaches almost 3,000 m in some areas. Salinity is >40 PSU, and the bottom water is never colder than 20°C. Due to these challenging conditions and great depths the Red Sea Rift is the least explored part of the Red Sea.

Deep marine research traditionally relies on low-resolution ship-based hydroacoustic methods and inaccurate seafloor sampling with tethered sampling gear, which primarily helps to answer regional questions. To answer local, more detailed research questions, deep-towed sensors and acoustic and photographic instruments can provide higher resolution but often lack accurate position information.

High-resolution deep sea research and dedicated sampling of the unique environment require state-of-the-art robotic systems. These can be operated remotely (ROV) or be autonomous vehicles (AUV) with a predefined mission plan. ROV and AUV systems have become available to many seagoing institutes and have their individual strengths, but they also face environmental and engineering challenges. This talk will discuss the use of robotic systems for deep marine research from a users point of view, evaluating requirements, issues, limitations, and a 'wish-list-to-the-engineers' from a deep marine scientist.



Professor Froukje M. van der Zwan is an assistant professor in Earth Science and Engineering at KAUST since 2019 and associate director of the Red Sea Research Center since 2021. She has worked on the Red Sea since her PhD at GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, followed by postdoctoral work at the University of Kiel. Froukje has a strong interest and expertise in magmatic and hydrothermal processes at young rifted margins (e.g. the Red Sea), Mid-Oceanic Ridges and intraplate volcanoes. Her research aims to understand why volcanic and magmatic provinces occur where they are and by which processes they form. In addition, she studies hydrothermal systems and their effect on magmatic processes and the formation of related mineral resources. Her research methods are igneous petrology, geochemistry and volcanology, combined with data from other (geoscience) disciplines. This interdisciplinary approach including field and/or sea expeditions is key to unravel geological processes and to understand volcanic and hydrothermal systems in all their aspects.