In Depth

Red Sea ‘as bad for pollution as major oil nations’ - but how?

Unique geographical features cause natural greenhouse gas emissions, study finds

The Red Sea is causing greenhouse gas pollution as bad as that produced by major oil-producing countries, according to a new report.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany found that the Red Sea releases 220,000 tonnes of naturally occurring hydrocarbon gases annually, The Times reports.

This is comparable to the man-made pollution produced by major oil producers such as Iraq, the UAE and Kuwait.

How is the Red Sea such a pollutant?

The research team made the discovery in 2017, when they noticed that levels of ethane and propane in the air above the Red Sea were up to 40 times higher than predicted, says the Times.

However, they have only now discovered what is causing the high pollution levels.

Ethane and propane gases buried in reservoirs under the sea are rising up and leaking into the atmosphere, Singapore-based The Straits Times reports. 

The gases come from deposits in the Gulf of Suez and Aquaba, which “mix with emissions from industrial shipping and turn into noxious pollutants that are very harmful to human health”, the paper adds.

How is the Red Sea different from others?

“The Red Sea... has some unique geological features,” says the study, led by Efstratios Bourtsoukidis.

This is because the water in the Red Sea, which ranges from 300m to 2,000m deep, is the warmest and saltiest deep water in the world

According to iflscience.com, the saltiness means the sea has “exceptionally efficient saline transportation systems”, which also allows the gases to reach the surface.

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Will it get worse?

Yes, according to the experts. 

The Max Planck team believes that because of the way deep-water circulation works, the emissions in the winter are likely to be higher than the summer, when their measurements were made. An expected rise in shipping levels will also make matters worse, they say.

“In the coming decades, ship traffic through the Red Sea and Suez Canal is expected to continue to increase strongly, with a concomitant rise in nitrogen oxide emissions,” said Boursoukidis.

“Such increase will amplify the role of this source, leading to significant deterioration of the regional air quality.”

As the Times explains, nitrogen oxide emissions “interact with ethane and propane and result in the production of a polluting ‘smog’”. 

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