State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Dead Sea Dilemma – Part I

There is one thing that people do agree on in the Middle East – the Dead Sea needs help. Its surface level is dropping by an average of three feet a year and the shoreline has retreated more than a mile in some locations. Over the past 50 years, the surface area of the Sea has decreased by a third. Certainly, there are major social, economic, and political implications for the decline of the Dead Sea. However, in this two-part blog post, I will focus on the ecological conditions, as this aspect is often pushed into the background.

The Dead Sea is the lowest point and the saltiest large body of water on the planet. It is fed by discharge from the Jordan River, underground springs and rain, but now municipalities, agriculture, and industry are diverting so much water that the Dead Sea only receives 5% of what it used to. Dumping of sewage in to the Jordan River also means that the only fresh water that enters the Dead Sea now is from the springs and rain, which has led it to become saltier and more oil-like. Environmentalists say that, at this rate, the Dead Sea will continue to decline until it reaches equilibrium when it becomes so salty that evaporation will stop – at 1,800 feet below sea level in 100 – 200 years. (It is currently about 1,300 feet below sea level.)

The Dead Sea Basin is a truly ecologically unique area. Though named for the apparent inability to support life in its waters, in fact, halophitic and halotolerant microorganisms have been identified. It supports and is surrounded by unique and diverse ecosystems: semi-tropical marshland, mudflat, wetland, mountains, and desert. The region supports endangered species such as ibex, leopards, and hyrax. The wetlands are used as resting and breeding sites for millions of migratory birds.

What kind of damage will be done to this ecosystem if the Dead Sea continues to shrink? Already as a result of the receding water, thousands of sink holes have formed around the area. It is also possible that the receding Dead Sea could cause the regional water table to decrease if there is increased inflow of fresh groundwater into the Dead Sea. The results could be far-reaching and hard to reverse.

The next post in this series will look at the proposed solutions and their ecological impacts.

For information on the Dead Sea’s decline:

For information on the ecology in the region:

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13 years ago

The name ‘Dead Sea’ is actually a kinder, gentler translation from the Hebrew name ‘Yam ha Maved’, which means, ‘Killer Sea’. The Dead Sea has some of the most saline water on earth…as much as 35% of the water is dissolved salts. The Dead Sea gets saltier with increasing depth, but even at shallow depths it is about ten times the salinity of the oceans.

There are no animals of any kind living in or near the water. Only bacteria and algae have adapted to harsh life in the waters of the Dead Sea. Fish that wonder into the Dead Sea die almost immediately.

While the Dead Sea sounds like a brutal environment, it is surrounded by and supports the unique and diverse ecosystems further described in Samantha’s post.

The Dead Sea is in need of TLC.

13 years ago

[…] now we have a term for something that we’ve been watching occur all around us. The Dead Sea receives 5% of the water it used to naturally receive from the Jordan River – the other 95% is […]

Jo Candle
Jo Candle
13 years ago

Those collapsing sink holes that Samantha mentions are neither few nor small. Some are 45ft deep and 70ft in diameter. I would call that a crater.

On the western shores of the Dead Sea alone, 2,000 of these sinkholes have been identified.

The Dead Sea problem is super serious.