Jul 26, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Dead Pools Discovered on the Bottom of the Red Sea

What is a dead pool? If you are under the age of 20, you may think it’s the Marvel movie character played by Ryan Reynolds, who was named for the game ‘dead pool’ which involves predicting and betting on when someone will die. If you are involved with the hydroelectric power industry, you know a ‘dead pool’ is what is left when water in a reservoir drops so low that it can’t flow downstream from a dam – this is a problem in the U.S. at Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead’s Boulder Canyon Dam. However, if you’re a marine biologist, you know that a ‘dead pool’ is a rare deep-sea brine pool with no oxygen where nothing but extreme microorganisms can live, and anything else that swims into one never comes out alive. That is the type of dead pool we are talking about today as marine biologists studying the Red Sea in Israel have found more dead pools on its floor than ever before … and that may be a good thing.

He says it's a good thing. I'm going to find out why before going in.

“Any animal that strays into the brine is immediately stunned or killed."

Sam Purkis, a professor and chair of the Department of Marine Geosciences at the University of Miami, is studying deep-sea brine pools to see the past and the future. Their anoxia state (lacking oxygen) keeps animals out and thus provides pristine preservation of ancient sediments on the sea floor – revealing a picture of the environment over millions of years. That lack of oxygen and hyper salinity doesn’t stop extremophile microbes from living in it – and these could be the types of life forms we might find on other planets and moons. The good news is, the latest deep-sea brine pools found are very close to the shore of Neom (written NEOM) – a high tech city being built in Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk Province on the northwestern shore of the Red Sea. The better news is, these dead pools might actually help living humans.

"Molecules with antibacterial and anticancer properties have previously been isolated from deep-sea microbes living in brine pools."

According to Live Science, which interviewed Purkis for the release of the study he led and co-authored in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, finding deep-sea brine pools of any kind, let alone so close to the shore, is a rarity – there are only a few dozen and only in the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The Red Sea has the most dead pools due to its unique location – the sea level was lower than it is today during the Miocene epoch (about 23 million to 5.3 million years ago) and that allowed pockets of minerals to be stored on the floor. Today, those minerals are dissolving and forming the deep-sea brine pools. However, all of them have been found at least 15.5 miles (25 km) offshore – a distance even Moses would have trouble parting the waters to reach. That changed in 2020.

“During the 2020 research cruise of R/V OceanXplorer, an expedition aimed at exploring and further detailing the deep seabed offshore Saudi Arabia, we discovered a complex of brine pools at 1,770 m depth. Unlike all previous discoveries, these pools situate in the Gulf of Aqaba and are the first discovery outside the Red Sea proper.”

The Gulf of Aqaba is a northern pocket of the Red Sea and the newly discovered pools are just 1.25 miles (2 km) from shore. The Red Sea possesses the highest known number of deep-sea brine pools. These are thought to arise from dissolving pockets of minerals deposited during the Miocene epoch (about 23 million to 5.3 million years ago) when the sea level in the region was lower than it is today. The largest of the pools measured about 107,000 square feet (10,000 square meters) in area, while the smallest three are less than 107 square feet (10 square meters). Purkis tells Live Science that the pools immediately began paying off for the researchers.

“(The brine pools) represent an unbroken record of past rainfall in the region, stretching back more than 1,000 years, plus records of earthquakes and tsunami. (In the past 1,000 years, major floods) occur about once every 25 years, and tsunamis [take place] about once every 100 years."

This is critical information to NOEM the city and NOEM the company helping to build it in an area that was sparsely populated just a few years ago. Tsunamis, floods and other natural disasters will impact the construction of buildings and home in NOEM. While the sediment in the dead pools tells of the more recent past, the so-called 'extremophile' microbes may show what life may have looked like at its first appearance on Earth … and potentially what it looks like on other planets with saline water. In a sense, these pools are a  bubble world, as the microbes stay in and normal sea creatures stay out. Or so the researchers thought until they noticed a veritable buffet occurring in the waters around them.

“Eels, bigeye houndshark (Lago omanensis), and flat fish (likely sharpnose tonguesole cf Cynoglossus acutirostris) behaved in a manner consistent with their use of the brine as a feeding strategy. These predators appeared to deliberately cruise the brine surface and the eel (species as yet unidentified) was observed repeatedly dipping into the brine, presumably to retrieve animals which had been shocked or killed by the anoxic waters. Such behavior was unequivocal for the armies of shrimp (Plesionika sp.) that amassed on topographic highs around the rim of the pool . When illuminated by red light, we observed this shrimp species venturing as far as the mid-pool (>30 m from the rim) and plucking out small organisms disabled by the brine.”

What would Moses do?

Think of these deep-sea brine pools as a kind of bug zapper that immediately stuns or kills shrimp and other creatures, which then float away to be gorged upon by hungry predators who have learned to have out at this all-you-can-eat undersea Red Lobster. Finally, the extremophile microbes have been used previously to create bioactive molecules with therapeutic potential to fight cancer and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The benefits of these Red Sea dead pools sound appropriately almost biblical in scope. Sadly, they may need a miracle to continue as the red Sea, already one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, continues to suffer from the evaporating effects of climate change. And, as more cities pop up on its coastlines, their populations will need desalinization plants for clean drinking water. Whatever the solution, let’s hope we implement it before the Red Sea becomes one big dead pool.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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