Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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» Sabah Al Ahmad Sea City, Kuwait

In southeastern Kuwait, on the coast of the Persian Gulf, a fascinating transformation is underway. It looks kind of like what you always wished you could build when making sand castles at the beach—an intricate interconnected moat in the sand with perfect circulation to keep the water from becoming stagnant. Only this is on a grander scale.

This is Sabah Al Ahmad Sea City, a city and marine ecosystem being built from scratch. Rather than build artificial islands in the sea to extend the country’s coastline, this project brings the sea to the desert.

Many Kuwaitis aspire to waterside living, and Sea City will provide such opportunities, effectively doubling the length of the country’s coastline. The project’s goal is for most residents to have direct access to a beach. Planners want the city to be the seafront destination of choice for Kuwait.

Sea City is eventually planned for a population of 250,000 and will have 200 kilometers of beaches. The city will also have yachting marinas and retail centers. When finished, Sea City will be about the size of Manhattan.

To build the city, canals are excavated out of the salty marshland. The excavated sand is washed and then used to build up the land for residential development. In fact, the land is being built up above projected sea levels to protect people and property from flooding.

This view also shows an expanding agricultural area along the Saudi Arabian border. In addition, other residential developments crop up in the inland desert areas over time. Just north of Sea City is the Al Zour thermal power plant. This gas-fired power plant and desalination plant were completed in late 2016.

(Black stripes run through some of the images because of the Scan Line Corrector failure on Landsat 7 in May 2003.)

The city is officially named Sabah Al Ahmad Sea City, after Sabah Al Ahmad, who has been emir of Kuwait since 2006.

Map of the featured area.

Building Sea City is a massive and challenging engineering project that requires constant innovation. As seen in the 1994 image from Landsat, the area is a natural estuary with tidal creeks. The design of Sea City follows these existing tidal creeks to bring water inland from the Gulf.

The first phase of construction began in 2003. The 2004 Landsat image shows the first artificial waterway. Eventually, the sea will be brought inland to the desert by about 9 kilometers on what was once desolate unusable salt marsh. The lagoons created are 3–4 meters deep on average.

The water in the lagoons needs to be flushed and kept circulating so it doesn’t become stagnant. With the Gulf’s tidal range of 2.7 meters, this flushing happens in the waterways of Sea City naturally. Farther inland, however, tidal action needs a little help. Giant gates help control the flow of the tides and ensure circulation of the entire lagoon system. It works like a natural pump. Testing of the seawater has shown that its quality is excellent.

Continuous testing of the seabed and water takes place during and after construction of each phase of the Sea City project to monitor the condition of the sea and coast. Scientists take water and sand samples from many locations to monitor water and sediment quality.

Marine life is now flourishing in what was once relatively lifeless desert. Even new coral is growing in the lagoons. According to a study conducted in the new marine environment, over 1,000 marine macrobiota, including 100 commercial fish and shellfish species, inhabited the waterways within just a few years of bringing seawater to the desert. The species richness after just 4 years was equivalent to that of the open sea.

Mangroves, a salt-tolerant plant, are raised in nurseries and then planted on islands in the new lagoons. The mangroves provide nurseries for fish and stabilize the marine bed. Since the waterways are semi-enclosed, they provide protected nurseries for fish, shellfish, and other wildlife. Bees were also introduced to pollinate the salt-tolerant plants. The aim is to have a coastal landscape that can survive without freshwater.

A breakwater also needed to be built. This detached breakwater was built with 28,000 hexagonal concrete blocks, which were cast on site. These were used instead of rock because rock would not have been strong enough to protect the city and its lagoons from the currents of the open Gulf.

The new marine environment created is the heart of the project. Sea City is becoming at once a thriving ecosystem and a modern city.


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