Dead Sea

The BBC has reported on some recent research presented at the 2011 AGU fall meeting which suggests that the Dead Sea may well have dried up, perhaps completely, 120 thousand years ago.  Scientists have drilled 460 metres into sediment beneath the Dead Sea (close to the lakes deepest section) in order to analyse lake history and regional climate conditions hundreds of thousands of years ago from evidence revealed in the sediment layers.  In this core, at a depth of 235m, corresponding to 120,000 years ago they found a layer of small, rounded pebbles suggesting a lake beach at that location during this time, i.e. the water must have been close to completely gone.

The Dead Sea, which is the lowest land point on Earth, sitting over 400 metres below sea level, has extremely salty waters.  A natural control exists such that during warming evaporation increases causing a lowering lake level which results in more saline water and therefore a slowing of evaporation, thus making it difficult to completely dry the lake.

Currently the lake is lowering at a rate of 1.2 metres a year due mainly to human influences (as discussed in a previous post).  This recent finding, if proven correct (note at time of writing it has not yet been subjected to the scientific peer-review process), demonstrates extremely low lake levels are possible even without human interference, further raising concerns for the lakes future.

This research project could well shed light on climate and earthquake events reported to have occurred during Biblical times.

“We see a lot of these different stories in the Bible about fat years and lean years,” said Steven Goldstein, a geochemist at Columbia University in New York. “And we can see in the record that there were these intervals where it looks like it was a land of milk and honey, and there were intervals where there was no water, no rain and I’m sure, famine. Climate validates that there were these rhythms.” [source].

After reading about the shrinking Jordan River (see earlier post) I came across an interesting news article in Nature on the disappearing Dead Sea.  The Jordan River ends it’s course in the Dead Sea and so if river discharge has been declining for some time it makes sense that the water level of the Dead Sea is likewise declining.  In fact the water level has dropped by about 30 metres over the last 50 years and its current rate of decline is around 1.2 metres a year.  However, although currently more water is evaporated from this salty lake than flows into it, there is an interesting natural control limiter at play.

‘The Dead Sea will probably never vanish completely – as its surface shrinks, its salinity increases and evaporation slows.  “The Dead Sea will not die,” says Ittai Gavrieli, acting director of the Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem … But if nothing changes, the lake is likely to drop a further 100-150 metres from its current level of 423 metres below sea level, Gavrieli says.’  Josie Glausiusz, Nature, vol. 464, p. 119, 2010

The Nature news article concerns the proposed engineering project to build a conduit to carry water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea.  The water flow in the pipeline would feed a hydroelectric plant and power a desalination plant providing much needed drinking water for the surrounding regions.  The proposed project involves the international collaboration between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority (a unique achievement in its own right!).

A new conduit would lead to a “Valley of peace” with parks, lakes, waterfall,  and a botanical garden.  Could this potential greening and healing of the waters be the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy!?

He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea.  When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh.  Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.  People will fish along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. (Ezekiel 47:8-10 TNIV)

Well not so fast, there are all sorts of potential environment hazards and consequences that could result from such a project.  The influx of less-salty water could trigger algae blooms turning the Dead Sea Red!  Another scenario could see the waters turning milky white as a results of chemical reactions forming gypsum crystal that would float at the surface.  A series of modelling studies are underway to determine potential impacts of the proposed conduit.  But at the end of the day

‘The decision to stop the sea’s decline, says Gavrieli, “is a matter of choosing between bad and worse.  But the question is, what is bad and what is worse?” ‘ Josie Glausiusz, Nature, vol. 464, p. 119, 2010