PAOC Spotlights

Studying Oil and Water

Mon December 3rd, 2018
Kelsey Tsipis | Program in Atmospheres, Oceans and Climate
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Maryam Rashed Alshehhi, a visiting assistant professor from the United Arab Emirates, models the Arabian Gulf—a region with a freshwater shortage, oil spills, and frequent dust storms. (Photo credit: Kelsey Tsipis)


On a black monitor in a dusty office in MIT’s Green Building, an iceberg the width of three football fields wades in the shallow, briny waters of the Arabian Gulf, 6,000 miles from its home.

Facing the screen is Maryam Rashed Alshehhi, a visiting assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and recent doctoral graduate from the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Using advanced climate models, Alshehhi is estimating how quickly an iceberg will melt in one of the warmest regions in the world, and how existing water and wildlife, long accustomed to a parched dessert climate, will react. 

The mirage-like simulation is not entirely hypothetical. Engineering firms in the UAE have recently touted plans to tow chunks of ice wrapped in plastic from Antarctica to the coast of the Arabian Gulf to be used as fresh drinking water. There is perhaps no one better to vet the plan’s plausibility than Alshehhi, who in 2016 became the first United Arab Emirates national to get a PhD in earth observation and ocean color remote sensing.  

Since March, Alshehhi has been working in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences’ (EAPS) Marshall Group to create the first-ever climate models of the Arabian Gulf, a small body of water in an arid region where water availability and environmental standards have historically taken a back seat to rapid urbanization and oil interests.

Alshehhi comes to Cambridge, MA, as a part of a collaboration between MIT and Masdar Institute, a research-focused graduate university located in Abu Dhabi. The program, called the MIT/MI Cooperative Program, started in 2007 with the aim of strengthening the country’s research capabilities to transform its oil-based economy. Over 93 joint research projects have resulted, many focusing on sustainability issues, such as Abu Dhabi’s urban heat island effect and the Gulf nation’s growing thirst for fresh water. 

“There’s really been a surge of interest in sustainability solutions in my country,” says Alshehhi. “And fresh water is one of biggest problems that we face. It’s really become the motivation for my research.”

Oil and water

Alshehhi grew up on the heels of the oil boom in the UAE. The second youngest of seven siblings, she was raised in Ras Al-Khaimah, a coastal city of a 345,000 or so nestled in between Dubai and the country’s easternmost tip. The explosive rise of industry in the country paved the way for her and her siblings to be the first college-educated generation in her family.

As an undergrad, she followed in one of her older sister’s footsteps, studying chemical engineering at Khalifa Institute before switching to environmental engineering during graduate studies at Masdar Institute. Oceanography, she realized once in graduate school, proved to be a challenging field of research in the UAE.

For one, collecting data in the Arabian Gulf “is not easy at all,” she says. The extreme heat and humidity (the average summer temperature is 41oC, or 106oF) make for painstaking fieldwork. And, on numerous occasions, a research vessel that Alshehhi was aboard was ordered to turn around because it was approaching another coastal country’s waters.

But more often and adamantly, Alshehhi recalls the excitement of being a part of the nascent field. She contributed to the first field campaign in the Gulf region that followed NASA protocol, resulting in the first data on optical oceanography in the Arabian Sea.

I love that research like this opens your eyes to new things,” she says. “And that you’re never doing the same routine day after day.”  

Alshehhi’s graduate research focused on monitoring the Arabian Gulf from above, using satellite imagery to track biological life. The work produced a clearer picture into the enormous economic and ecological cost of the country’s engineering infrastructure, such as its desalination plants.

Currently, to meet fresh water demands, the country relies on 31 water desalination plants to run around the clock, purifying the equivalent of 4 billion bottles of saltwater a day. The plants pump the waste, a salty sludge, back into the Gulf, resulting in steadily rising salinity levels in the Arabian Gulf, threatening local fauna and marine life and causing outbreaks of algae blooms.

“These blooms then come into the dissemination plants and plug the filters, and we get a shortage of water,” Alshehhi explains. “In 2008, some plants were closed for 3 months, and we had a lot of issues.”

Dust storms in the region make it difficult to use conventional satellite images to detect these harmful algal blooms. Alshehhi and collaborators developed algorithms to clear the noise from these images by looking at the spectrum of satellite signals and eliminating some of the radiance of the aerosols.

The results, which are published in Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium, became Alshehhi’s PhD dissertation. In 2016, Alshehhi became the first UAE national to successfully defend a doctoral thesis in her field.   

Into the deep

Today, at MIT, Alshehhi’s work on the Gulf goes beyond looking at just its surface. Together with John Marshall, EAPS Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography and expert in global ocean circulation modeling, she is creating in-depth models of the Arabian Gulf using numerical and theoretical frameworks supported by field and satellite data.

The project, which is in the first of its 3-year stint, will be the first record of the Arabian Gulf’s water columns, circulation, and climate dynamics. Later on, these physical models will be overlaid with biogeochemical models to see how effects like increasing pollution, changing saline levels, and rising temperatures are influencing biological beings in the Gulf.

“I’m really enjoying working with Maryam,” says Marshall. “I am learning so much from her about the Arabian Gulf and its oceanography, but also something of the people and customs of the region, and the environmental challenges they face.”

Marshall says he’s looking forward to future planned visits to the UAE, where these models will help answer unsolved questions like where the salty sludge from the desalination plants ends up, the link between the dust storm deposits and biological life, and what kind of nutrients are settling into the water—and at what depth.  

“There are a lot of things that we don’t know, things we have never seen before,” says Alshehhi.

The research also comes during a time when the UAE faces some urgent environmental dilemmas. Alshehhi is hopeful her science can provide better insight into such issues, such as the safety of the first nuclear power plant under construction in Abu Dhabi, the impact from pollution left behind from the more than 100 oil tankers passing through the Gulf every day, and whether an iceberg can prevent a fresh water shortfall and meet future demand.

These problems may be close to home for Alshehhi, but she stresses the broad implications of her research.  

“People may look at the project like, ‘That’s a small region,’” says Alshehhi. “But if you look at the bigger picture, there are a lot of research questions that we can take out on this project. Maybe there is a new thing that we have never observed about the Gulf that can be applied to a similar region.” 

Alshehhi’s appointment is for 1 year, which means that next March, she will shed her recently purchased winter coat and boots and return home to the UAE.

“I am looking forward to going home and taking this experience with me,” she says. “It’s so important to come here and learn from experts like John and others so we can improve education and research back home.”

The snow, she adds with a laugh, makes it a little easier to leave.