The Dead Sea

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Podcast Transcript

Divided between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian West Bank lies the lowest point on the surface of the Earth: The Dead Sea.

Not only is it the lowest point on Earth, but the sea is one of the saltiest bodies of water on the planet. 

But how did this place come to exist, and is it true that it will completely disappear at some point?

Learn more about the Dead Sea and how it came to be, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you haven’t been to the Dead Sea, it is a pretty incredible place for a whole host of reasons. 

Let’s start out with its claim to fame, being the lowest point on Earth. The current elevation of the surface of the Dead Sea is approximately 432 meters below sea level or 1,417 feet.

I say approximately because the Dead Sea is dropping in elevation rapidly. In the mid-1970s the elevation of the Dead Sea was only 402 meters below sea level. Currently, it is dropping over one meter, or three feet each year, which is a really dramatic change in water level.  More on that in a bit.

So, why does this exist? What makes this place so far below sea level?

The most widely accepted theory amongst geologists is that the Dead Sea is part of the Red Sea Rift. The Red Sea rift is created from the African tectonic plate separating from the Arabian tectonic plate. The most obvious result of this spreading is the Red Sea. 

This is part of a larger feature which includes the East African rift. The East African rift starts at the strait where the Arabian Peninsula almost touches Africa and then runs down Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique. 

All of the major East African lakes, such as Lake Victoria, Lake Malawi, and Lake lake Tanganyika are a part of this. 

Where does the Dead Sea get its water?

Most of the water in the Dead Sea comes from the Jordan River. The water comes down from the Golan Heights, flows into the Sea of Galilee, which is also below sea level, and then flows from there into the Dead Sea. 

From the Dead Sea, the water doesn’t go anywhere, and that is the reason why the Dead Sea is so salty. 

The Jordan River is a freshwater river and its water is used for agriculture and drinking. Like all freshwater bodies of water, there is a small amount of dissolved minerals in the water, including salt. Usually, it is so slight that it doesn’t really matter. 

When water flows into the Dead Sea, it evaporates, leaving the minerals it brought with it behind. Over thousands of years, the salts and minerals built up leaving behind the salty body of water we have today. 

The reason why the Dead Sea has been dropping so rapidly is that the water in the Jordan River has been diverted for agricultural usage and consumption. There isn’t as much water flowing into the Dead Sea as there used to be, so the rate of evaporation is now much greater than the rate at which water flows into the sea. 

Just how salty is the Dead Sea? 

A kilogram of water from the Dead Sea will consist of about 33.7% salt. To put that in perspective, that is about 8.6 times saltier than regular seawater.

Contrary to popular belief, the Dead Sea is not the saltiest body of water on Earth, but it is close. It is actually the fifth most salty, but the ones which have higher salinity are pretty small. 

Because there is so much dissolved material in the water, that makes it much easier to float because the water is heavier.  The same is true with salt water and fresh water, but with the Dead Sea, the effect is even more dramatic.

So, yes, it is true that you can really easily float in the Dead Sea, however,  here is the part where I have to give a personal warning. 

I went into the Dead Sea years ago and did the floating thing, and yes, it was a unique experience. However, if you have even the slightest scratch, nick, cut, or abrasion on your body, you will be in incredible pain. This could be anything as slight as shaving to cutting your toenails. 

Also, you can’t really swim in the Dead Sea. At least not anything like you’d be used to calling swimming. It is so buoyant that you can’t really do much, and moreover, if you get any of the water in your mouth or eyes, you will regret it. 

True story: I was on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea walking around near the shore. I saw an interesting-looking rock that was encrusted with salt in the water, so I bent down to pick it up. While I was looking at it, it slipped out of my hand and fell into the water. A single drop of water splashed up and hit me in the eye. 

Normally, no big deal, but because of the salinity, I couldn’t see out of that eye for like 5 minutes. 

It sounds like I”m really down on the whole Dead Sea experience. That isn’t true.

While going in the water is highly overrated, being near the Dead Sea actually has some enormous benefits. 

For starters, because you are so far below sea level, you are protected from an extra 1,500 feet of atmosphere. The atmosphere is thicker than the atmosphere at sea level. 

That means the shore of the Dead Sea is going to get the lowest levels of ultraviolet radiation in the world. If your skin very easily burns, this is one of the best places to go if you want to get out in the sun. 

Likewise, there is more oxygen at this elevation. One study conducted in 1996 on people with chronic lung diseases found significant increases in arterial oxygen tension, exercise capacity, sleep oxygen saturation, and an improvement in quality of life while staying at the Dead Sea. This was found during both a short stay (1 week) as well as a longer stay (3 weeks). The improvement in exercise capacity persisted 2-3 weeks after leaving the area.”

Being near the Dead Sea is like being in a weak hyperbaric chamber all the time. 

Another question that is often asked is, is the Dead Sea really dead? 

To steal a line from the movie The Princess Bride, the Dead Sea is mostly dead. 

There are no macroscopic fish or plants which live in the water. It is simply too salty. However, there are some species of microscopic organisms that have been found. These are called haloarchaea, or salt-loving members of the kingdom archaea. Genetically, they aren’t bacteria per se, but they do look like them. 

Another side effect of the climate around the Dead Sea is that it preserves things extremely well. There is a good reason why the Dead Sea Scrolls were found near the Dead Sea. The area is so dry that almost nothing rots. 

Probably the most significant historical site overlooking the Dead Sea would be Masada, on the Israeli side. I’ll do a full episode on this in the future, as well as on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but it was where a group of Jews held out against the Romans and resulted in a mass suicide in the year 74.

The fortress is very well preserved as are the remnants of the Roman camp nearby. Roman military camps were designed to be temporary structures, but this is one of the few places where you can see the outline of the camp in the desert almost 2,000 years later. 

On the Jordanian side, there is a river and canyon known as Wadi Mujib. It is relatively shallow by a fast-flowing river where you can go canyoning. You literally walk up the river and climb up waterfalls. I did it several years ago and it was a blast, other than the fact that I lost a pair of glasses while doing it. 

Likewise, nearby is the Ma’in Hot Springs, which has one of the only hot water waterfalls in the world. 

All things being equal, I enjoyed the Jordanian side more as there are better and more accessible resorts, but both sides should be visited, especially Masada on the Israeli side.

What is the future of the Dead Sea? If it keeps dropping at a meter per year, will it eventually disappear?

The answer is probably not. Hydrologists that have studied it think that it will eventually reach an equilibrium. As the sea gets smaller, less water will evaporate and it will balance the water coming in. The expected water level when this happens will be around 550 meters below sea level or about 1800 feet.

However, there is one other reason why it might not disappear.

Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel have been talking about a project called the Red Sea/Dead Sea Water Conveyance. Basically, it would involve building a pipeline to transport seawater to a desalinization plant. The plant would create freshwater which could be used, and then the resulting brine would be sent to the Dead Sea to offset the drop in water levels. The goal would be to bring the water level back up to the level it was at in 1978.

However, talks about the project have been put on hold since 2017. 

Believe it or not, there is some industrial activity near the Dead Sea. If you look at a map or a satellite image, you’ll see at the southern end of the Dead Sea very large evaporation pools of water.

This is technically not part of the Dead Sea. This area dried out years ago. However, water is pumped from the dead sea to this area where it is allowed to evaporate. The resulting minerals which participate out are then collected, primarily potash and bromine.

Likewise, salts and mud from the Dead Sea are sold around the world which is said to have therapeutic and medical benefits. Beyond floating in the Dead Sea, one of the most popular tourist activities is to cover yourself head to toe with mud. 

In short, the Dead Sea is a really interesting place. Geologically, geographically, historically, chemically, and even medicinally, there are things that make this a worthwhile place to visit if you are ever in the region. 

However, if you try floating in the water with a scratch on your body, don’t say I didn’t warn you.