How dead is the Dead Sea?
Updated: Feb 24
It's NOT dead to beauty!
The beautiful turquoise-blue Dead Sea with its glittery crystalline edges is located at THE LOWEST point on Earth. Sitting at about 1400 ft. (430 m.) below sea level, the Dead Sea is really not a sea. It is a land-locked lake! It is nestled in the Middle East with its entire eastern shoreline being Jordan and its western shoreline laying partly in the Palestinian West Bank (along its northern half) and partly in Israel (along its southern half). The Dead Sea is one of the world's saltiest natural bodies of water with a saltiness about 10 times that of ordinary ocean water, which PERHAPS may be why this lake is often referred to as a sea.
It's NOT dead to mineral resources!
The ancient fishermen navigated this "sea" by boat, but FISH, THEY DID NOT! As the Dead Sea was (and is) one that did not sustain fish, nor any recognizable marine life, for that matter. That fact was already known and DOCUMENTED in the 6th century on the famous MOSAIC MAP of the region, discovered in Madaba, Jordan. If you allow your eyes to zoom in on the section showing the Jordan River just as it empties into the Dead Sea, you can see the fish reversing its course and swimming UPSTREAM in the Jordan River, against the current, to avoid the overt saltiness, and thereby instant death, of the Dead Sea waters.
While the Dead Sea sustains no life, it is a valuable commodity for minerals and salts. Even back during Roman times, for example, the Roman puppet-king Herod, curried favor with Cleopatra and the Egyptians through BITUMEN, a kind of resin or tar found along the bottom of the Dead Sea. This was a prized natural resource by the Egyptians, for they used it in their mummification processes. Hence, the Judean King Herod was able to generate great wealth and allegiance from Egypt, via that Dead Sea resource.
Today, located south of the NATURAL Dead Sea is a large MAN-MADE reservoir that serves as an evaporation pool to facilitate extraction and easier access of the desired MINERALS and SALTS for consumer and export markets. Both Jordan and Israel, for example, have multibillion-dollar potash extraction industries in this area. For several millennia, people have relied upon the natural resources of 'the Sea'.
It's NOT dead to tourism!
Today, both locals and tourists enjoy the Dead Sea. While the warm, still, salty water is not particularly refreshing beneath the scorching desert sun, the water is relaxing, as the intense salt concentration allows you to feel weightless and literally float atop the water surface. However, the Dead Sea is NOT water that you can really swim in, as you must take GREAT CARE to prevent the water from getting into your eyes. The minerals in the mud from the bottom of the Dead sea are supposedly great for your skin, so visitors typically spread the mud across their exposed skin surfaces. Conveniently, several resorts have developed along the Dead Sea shores, particularly in the Ein Boqeq area of Israel which offer luxurious mud baths, salt scrubs, exfoliating skin treatments, and a potpourri of spa services. Entire skincare lines have developed from the Dead Sea products and savvy marketing. The Jordanian shoreline is even more expansively developed with multi-billion dollar seaside hotels, conference centers, and luxurious apartment buildings.
It's NOT dead to history!
Along the Judean desert shores of the Dead Sea in an area called Qumran lived the Essenes. They were a devout religious sect of Judaism during the first century AD, comparable to what could be considered 'Jewish monks'. They consisted of a small group of celibate men who lived in isolated desert caves but shared some communal activities. Aside from prayer and strict religious rituals, they transcribed many documents and made copies of the Hebrew bible. When the Roman legions were advancing on Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Essenes hid their manuscripts within large clay pots in the surrounding desert caves, The scrolls stayed hidden until 1947 when they were discovered by a local Bedouin shepherd who was herding his goats. These are known today as The Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the scrolls compose the oldest written record of the Hebrew Bible, while others relate to non-biblical topics. The Great Isaiah Scroll is almost completely intact. These scrolls passed through several hands since they were first found and are currently housed in a special climate-controlled exhibition called the Scroll of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Interestingly, there is a small original fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the USA, as well, located at the Oriental Museum in Chicago.
Another nearby site of historical interest worth visiting, from which you can see SPECTACULAR views of the Dead Sea and the surrounding area is Masada, formerly King Herod's fortress perched on top of a mountain. This was the location of the Jewish people's last stand against the Romans in 70 AD. The Jews that sequestered themselves inside the fortress ultimately carried out a mass suicide when the fortress was laid siege by the Roman forces. On a lighter note, in the present day, SUNRISE HIKES can be made up to the mountain fortress along a winding footpath, called the 'Snake Path.' Your early morning effort will be WELL REWARDED by the gorgeous view of the sun rising over the Dead Sea!
But, it's dying to the future!
While the Dead Sea still offers its beauty and resources to the public, as it had for millennia, it currently rests in a state of JEOPARDY. The water levels of the Dead Sea have been precipitously dropping every year, by 70-80 centimeters annually, and its area has been shrinking at a rate of one meter per year! This is due to several reasons: natural drought, climate change ensuing warmer temperatures and thereby more evaporation, but most significantly to an increase in the upstream demand for freshwater by an ever-growing population (refugees, Jordanians, Palestineans, and Israelis). That increased freshwater need necessitates the re-routing of upstream waters from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River, which thereby decreases inflow into the salty Dead Sea. Sinkholes that swallow roads and whole buildings have consequently developed along the Dead Sea's shoreline over the past years, resulting in numerous large areas of collapse. As the Dead Sea is a commodity and resource that deserves to be maintained, many think-tank groups are currently working to devise strategies to replenish the Dead Sea waters. One such idea is the RedSea-DeadSea Water Conveyance proposal. This would consist of a pipeline and pumping stations running for about 125 miles from the higher elevation of the Red Sea at the Gulf of Aqaba in the South to the lower elevation of the Dead Sea located more north. While this may seem like a solution beneficial from hydroelectric, volume replenishment, water desalination, economic (tourism), and political perspectives, there remains SOME concern by environmentalists of the potential resultant shift in the ecological micro-environment of the Dead Sea Waters. Other factors that also weigh heavily into the proposal are the overall expense of such a project, estimated at about $1.5 billion, as well as the need for three cultures (Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis), each with their OWN PRIORITIES, to work together and agree on a mutually beneficial arrangement. In that part of the world, such cooperation is, too often, a MAJOR obstacle.
It is common to think that a natural and beautiful site that we either visit firsthand or see in travel brochures, like the Dead Sea, which has been present for millennia, will endure for several more. Sadly, there exists a different reality imposed by nature, science, and humanity which have exacted a detrimental toll on the Dead Sea, in a trend that will continue unless intervention is imposed. Without intervention, scientists predict that the Dead Sea may dry up by 2050. I am optimistic that today, we HAVE the 'know-how' to intervene in a productive and beneficial way to change that trend; but, a lot more than 'know-how' is needed. Political compromise, financial investment, and environmental prioritization will need to happen, at the minimum to stabilize the situation, but preferably to reverse its course.