Geological evidence at the bottom of the Red Sea suggests that the region is at risk of a tsunami, and an international team of researchers has found evidence of a sizable tsunami hitting Egypt 500 years ago.
The discovery was possible thanks to deepwater explorations at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, the eastern branch of the Red Sea. This was part of an OceanX mission. At about 900 meters (roughly 3,000 feet) deep, lead study author Professor Sam Purkis saw cracks in the sea bed. The area is geologically active.
The Red Sea formed about 30 million years from the separation of the Arabian and African tectonic plates. While certainly possible, the finding, reported in Geophysical Research Letters, was surprising nonetheless.
“Immediately, I realized that what we were looking at was the result of some geological force, which had broken the seafloor,” explained Purkis, from the University of Miami, in a statement.
To understand the history of this underwater fracture, Purkis and a fellow scientist collected samples from the chasm using the submersible onboard the OceanXplorer research vessel.
The rock samples suggest that the crack formed 500 years ago, created by an underwater landslide. These events are known to cause tsunamis, and sediments collected north of the seabed fracture confirmed this view. Models suggest that the tsunami caused by this landslide could have been 10 meters (33 feet) high.
“Just a little shake in the wrong place and the whole wall could fail, leading to a much larger tsunami than occurred 500 years ago,” Purkis said. “That area of Egypt, as well as Saudi Arabia, which are urbanizing so rapidly, have certain hazards which haven’t been previously recognized, but they need to be, to avoid a future catastrophe.”
There are no historical reports of the tsunami taking place, so it is unknown if it was really that sizable and if it harmed anyone living in the region five centuries ago.
If the tsunami were to take place today, the situation would be very different – and much more dangerous. The area is more densely populated in this day and age, and will be even more so in the future. For example, there is the resort city of Sharm El Sheik, a famous tourist destination very close to where the landslide took place.
There is also the future project of The Line, a 170 kilometer (100 mile)-long city in Saudi Arabia powered by renewables being developed by NEOM. Such a tsunami would threaten the coastal regions of this megaproject. NEOM was a sponsor of this expedition.
Correction: Proper attribution was given to OceanX