Oil and water: Studying pressing environmental dilemmas in the Middle East

MIT Research News

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

Facing the screen is Maryam Rashed Alshehhi, a visiting assistant professor 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 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 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, Massachusetts, 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 nation’s growing thirst …

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