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.
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.
Out of the Blue
"The sinkholes are an example of what is happening on the Dead Sea shores," he said, noting that they first appeared in the late 1980s. "Nobody expected it and we were quite surprised to find it." Raz said he had anticipated substantial ground erosion, however, because the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth below sea level, is so far below the streams that feed into it. This causes the waters to pick up energy as they descend.
Raz said there are many theories behind the sinkholes, but it is clear that the salt cap under the ground surface is being dissolved by fresh water. The only question is "why?," but there is no doubt it's connected to the Dead Sea evaporation.
One solution to the problem is to pump in more water to the Dead Sea by building a canal from the Red Sea, to the south. But Raz believes that will make the situation worse.
"The composition of [normal] seawater is different," he said. "The higher concentration of sulfates would cause gypsum formation." That would turn the water white, rather than its current blue, making it unattractive to tourists.
But doing nothing, he said, could cause an economic loss of some $24 million to the region because of crippled industry and tourism, not counting the cost of social problems because of unemployment. There could also be an impact on the area's wildlife, including migratory birds.
"The indigenous species are all under threat," he said. "Ecology is like a chain. If you break it, no one knows what will happen."
He's not sure how much time is left, but he said, "in the most optimistic case, nothing will happen for the next 25 years."
Adam Dickter, writing for Sci-Tech Today, is taking part in a journalists mission to Israel to view scientific projects. The mission is sponsored by American Associates of Ben-Gurion University.