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At The Dead Sea, Getting That Sinking Feeling

At The Dead Sea, Getting That Sinking Feeling
By Adam Dickter

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Geologist Eli Raz says the clock is ticking. The water level of the Dead Sea is dropping by as much as two billion gallons a year, and the shoreline is receding by roughly four feet each year. The groundwater in the surrounding dry beds is drying up as well, causing dangerous sinkholes to form all around the periphery. The only question is why?
 


There's an old joke about an Israeli boy who, after hearing his friends boast about their dads' feats and exploits, declares "You know the Dead Sea? Well, my father killed it."

In reality, the Dead Sea is being killed, slowly, by people, and it's no joke. One of the natural wonders of the world, this 41 mile-long body in Israel's Jordan Rift Valley is known for its high salinity and extremely dense water. But now, it seems to be quickly drying up, year by year, because of a one-two punch from nature and man.

Fading Fast

Rainfall is naturally low, and water is diverted from the Jordan River's inflow to supply area cities. Mineral companies extracting potassium, potash and other resources are diverting or evaporating the water, posing a potential ecological risk for the area as well as an economic drain of millions of dollars in lost tourism.

Tens of thousands of tourists each year flock to the area because of what are believed to be abundant health benefits of bathing in the Dead Sea, including treatment for psoriasis, osteoarthritis and other ailments. Because of the high density, bathers are able to float effortlessly.

But geologist Eli Raz, a resident of Kibbutz Ein Gedi who has devoted decades to studying the Dead Sea, says the clock is ticking. The water level is dropping by as much as two billion gallons a year, and the shoreline is receding by nearly four feet a year, he says.

He sends a monthly report to the Arava Regional Council that governs the area and has been trying to find solutions with counterparts in neighboring Jordan. Unfortunately, cooperation between the two former enemies, who now have a treaty, has been only fleeting.

Raz, of Ben-Gurion University's Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, warns that it isn't just the sea water that's disappearing. The groundwater in the surrounding dry beds is drying up as well, and that's causing sinkholes to form all around the periphery.

Those sinkholes -- he estimates there may be as many as 4,000 -- have become his obsession. He was once studying one so close he fell in and was stranded inside for 14 hours. He got off easy: In April, 2009, an Israeli hiker was critically injured after falling into a sinkhole. The area has warning signs that are sometimes ignored.

This week, he pointed out to visitors one such hole that emerged on a byroad to a former tourist area, now off limits because of insurance concerns. Filling in the hole with concrete, he said, was a short-lived fix. It collapsed again. (continued...)

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