Dead Sea Drying Fast, a Sign of Trouble

Famed Lake Shrinks Due to Overuse of the Jordan River

Fast Retreating: The Dead Sea shoreline is retreating fast, planting the seeds for serious regional discord.
getty images
Fast Retreating: The Dead Sea shoreline is retreating fast, planting the seeds for serious regional discord.

By Joel Shurkin

Published December 14, 2011, issue of December 23, 2011.
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Scientists drilling into the Dead Sea bed have discovered that the sea, now drying up because of climate change and overuse, dried up once before on its own.

The process, which happened long ago without human intervention, is now going much faster because of global warming, which most scientists think is caused by human activity.

“We are accelerating the process,” said one of the researchers, Emi Ito, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Minnesota.

Salt of the Earth: Retreating water of the Dead Sea leaves behind crusty salt flats.
getty images
Salt of the Earth: Retreating water of the Dead Sea leaves behind crusty salt flats.

While the disappearance of the Dead Sea would be dramatic, the cause of its contraction is terrifying. No one draws water from the briny body, but its shrinkage reflects the rapid depletion of its source, the Jordan River, which is a primary source of water for Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians. Jordan gets 75% of its water supply from the Jordan River; Israel gets 60%. The large bluffs surrounding the sea demonstrate how much higher the water level once was.

The drying up of the Dead Sea “means that this water resource that people depend on now [has] basically stopped,” said Steven Goldstein, one of the lead scientists in the research and a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Just imagine what that means if a warming climate results in the present water supply becoming scarcer and scarcer.”

Past leaders of Jordan and Egypt, King Hussein and Anwar Sadat, respectively, have said that the only thing that would make them go to war with Israel would be water.

A team of about 60 scientists and graduate students from around the world, part of the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, are studying the sea. Reporting to a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco on December 5, the international research team said analysis of the core samples they have extracted from the sea bed might also cast light on humanity’s original journey out of Africa and what happened to Jericho when the walls came tumbling down (if indeed they did).

The Dead Sea basin is the lowest point of dry land on earth, about 1,400 feet below sea level. It sits on an earthquake fault — part in Israel, part in Jordan — that is much like the San Andreas fault in California. The water that pours into the sea from the Jordan has no other outlet.

Millions of years ago, the Mediterranean covered the Dead Sea basin. But it eventually retreated over the last 100,000 years, leaving a backwater scientists call the Sedom Lagoon and a series of lakes formed by glaciers during the ice ages of prehistory. As time passed and the climate changed, the lakes expanded and shrank. The Dead Sea is what remains.

To conduct its drilling research, the international team used a drilling rig mounted on a barge anchored about five miles offshore from Kibbutz Ein Gedi, near the sea’s Israeli shore, according to Zvi Ben-Avraham, professor of geophysics at Tel Aviv University.


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