The Dead Sea: Deader than Ever and Getting More So

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David Silverman / Getty Images

The dried-out center of the hypersaline lake

There is dead and there is dying. The Dead Sea manages both.

It's dead because the water in it contains way, way too much salt — eight times as much as the oceans — for virtually any living thing to survive. With a shoreline at the lowest land point on the globe — 1,388 ft. (423 m) below sea level — and no outlet, millennia of evaporation has left the seabed so caked with minerals the freshwater that flows in turns immediately lethal.

Not that much freshwater flows in these days. That's why the sea is dying, or drying up, at the rate of more than 3 vertical feet (1 m) per year — which on the gradual slope of the western shore can translate into 65 ft. (20 m) of exposed seabed. Most of the damage has been done in the last half-century, when almost all the water that once reached the Dead Sea was diverted to farms and taps. The Jordan River, so mighty in the Bible, is today a puny creek that draws snarls from disappointed tourists. "Everything changed when we started diverting water from the Sea of Galilee," says Mira Edelstein of Friends of the Earth Middle East. "The Jordan River used to bring 1.3 billion cu. ft. [37 million cu m] of water a year. Today it's 50 million. That's 2% of what it was."

At the same time, a unique and thirsty industry has been taking water from the sea, accelerating its decline. At the southern tip of the sea, the sprawling Dead Sea Works leaches huge quantities of the fertilizer potash from the seawater by funneling water through a canal into vast evaporation ponds in what once was the sea's southern basin. The Israeli company puts some of the water back, but combined with a similar operation on the Jordanian side, the result is a net loss for an already shrinking lake. "It's the combined issue of the Jordan River not flowing in anymore and industry drawing out water from the south," Edelstein says. "No wonder the Dead Sea is dying."

It's a spectacular death. Huge sinkholes are opening up, the earth's crust collapsing as freshwater springs follow receding seashore downhill. When the freshwater encounters massive subterranean boulders made of salt, it dissolves them, leaving the crust to collapse under its own weight, or, say, the weight of the woman who dropped 25 ft. (8 m) into the first one to open at the Ein Gedi campground in 1998. The same process is killing sumptuous oases. Three gardens fed by springs are drying as the water heads downslope, the plants unable to follow because the former lake bed is lethally saturated with salt. "Huge oases are disappearing," says Ariel Kedem, an instructor at the field school in Ein Gedi, Israel.

What to do? One especially extravagant option: pipe in water from the Red Sea, 118 miles (190 km) to the south. The Red-to-Dead canal would cost at least $17 billion and risk throwing the ecology of the Dead Sea wildly out of balance, not least because the Red Sea is a piece of the Indian Ocean, while what's been flowing into the Dead Sea for millennia is freshwater. Still, the plan has a fan in the Kingdom of Jordan, which would build a desalination plant on the canal and thereby supply its capital region with badly needed (and hugely expensive) drinking water.

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