The Dead Sea’s Ghost Shoreline

By Lidia Hernández Tapia

EIN BOKEK, Israel – The Dead Sea, whose shores mark the lowest point on Earth, has been shrinking for decades but today it is impossible to ignore. Most beaches along its northern shore are now closed as new sinkholes devour more coastline. At this pace, some Israelis fear their children will miss the chance to see the landscape they once knew.

“Nothing compares to that moment when a child goes to the Dead Sea for the first time,” says Ofir Katz, a scientist at the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center. “You realize that  things are supposed to sink when you go to the swimming pool or to the sea, the regular sea I mean. But then here you see people floating. And that changes your perspective of a lot of things.”

Over the last decade, according to data published by Arava, the sea level has declined almost 4 feet.  That has caused the salt lake — already so briny that people flock from around the world to float in it — to become even saltier.

Several factors have contributed to the current situation. One of the most important has been that as population has grown across the Middle East, so has demand for water. Agricultural irrigation has reduced the water level by around 131 feet since the 1950s due to settlements and urban development in the West Bank, Israel, Syria and Jordan. In the 1940s, a billion cubic meters of water a year flowed through the Lower Jordan River, south of Israel’s Lake Kinneret. Now the flow rate is one-fifth of that, 200 million cubic meters of water a year.

 

The Dead Sea is actually a lake located in the Jordan Rift Valley, which was formed over 3 million years ago. Ever since then, water has evaporated from the lake. Climate change has accelerated evaporation, making the sea the deepest hypersaline body of water on Earth.

Yet even after water retreats, salt deposits remain underground and sinkholes appear when those layers of salt come in contact with underground freshwater. Water from winter rains flows from Jerusalem to Hebron and, after seeping into the underground Judean Mountain Aquifer, eventually makes its way downhill to the Dead Sea. There it dissolves the salt, causing the ground to collapse in sinkholes.

There are more sinkholes in the Dead Sea region than anywhere else on the planet. While there were a little over 100 sinkholes in 1990, today there are around 6,000, according to the Geological Survey of Israel. Some are as large as 100 meters (328 feet) across and 50 meters (164 feet) deep.

Sinkholes have closed the northern public beaches of Mineral Beach and Ein Gedi, shuttering 40 businesses and forcing residents to find new jobs.

The residents of Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem used to run the Mineral Beach resort, which once annually drew 250,000 local and international visitors and provided the West Bank community with half its income. But when sinkholes threatened the resort’s parking lot, no insurance company would provide them coverage.

Now, the Mineral Beach spa is a ghost town, giving the feel of a post-apocalyptic war zone.

Ofir Katz, the scientist, somehow remains optimistic that the Dead Sea can be saved if Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians work together.

“I don’t think the Dead Sea is going to disappear in the near future,” Katz says. “The lower it gets, there is less surface that can evaporate. So evaporation rates should decrease.  Also, the northern basin is quite deep. Even if we are talking about, let´s say not one meter each year, but 3 meters each year, then drying out would take a century. And being optimistic to a certain degree I think that within a century we will find the solution.”

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