Sitting at the lowest point of elevation of any piece of land on Earth, the Dead Sea is an ancient lake with a length of more than 50 miles that includes Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan .
The Dead Sea is also a lake of no return, as the Jordan River feeds into the lake, but the lake itself has no outlet. This no-outlet situation has led to the accumulation of thousands of years of mineral deposits and to the development of waters that are ten times saltier than the northern Atlantic Ocean .
These conditions are inhospitable to all but the hardiest microbial life. Historically, the Dead Sea water levels were maintained through a delicate balance between freshwater inflow from the Jordan River and water evaporation that occurs during hot summer days of up to 120℉ (48.8°C) .
Today, the Dead Sea is drying up and is shrinking at an alarming rate of three feet per year. This rate of drying is unsustainable and if this trend continues, the Dead Sea is likely to dry up entirely.
Why is the Dead Sea shrinking?
Within the last 50 years, the population that lives near the Dead Sea has grown from 5.3 million to more than 20 million people, leading to a large increase in water that is drawn from the Jordan River .
Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories are all using the Jordan River’s water for agriculture, industry, and residential uses. As a result, the flow of water through the Jordan River from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea has been reduced from an inflow more than 343 billion gallons of fresh water to less than 26.4 billion gallons today .
One of the largest users of the Jordan River water supply is to fill evaporation pools that are used to extract potash and magnesium by mining companies from Israel and Jordan. This use is believed to account for an approximate 30 to 40 percent decrease in the water flow of the River .
Dead Sea Sinkholes: The negative effect of the shrinking lake
As the Sea continues to dry out, thousands of sinkholes are developing along the shoreline as fresh water from rains and desert flash flooding dissolves subterranean salt deposits below the lakebed and the ground above it collapses.
Today, more than 3,000 of these sinkholes are scattered along the Dead Sea shoreline, and more are added every day . It has been estimated that there were approximately 1,000 sinkholes present in the Dead Sea ten years ago, but today there are more than 3,000 of them, and their number is increasing on a daily basis .
The sinkholes range in size from the size of a basketball court to others that measure two-stories deep .
Why are the sinkholes forming?
The Dead Sea is shrinking because the water from the Jordan River that once freely flowed into the Sea has been highly diverted for farming, industry, and drinking water at upstream locations from its arrival at the ancient saline lake .
The yearly evaporation rate of up to five feet also leads to a decrease in water level for the lake. Altogether, the Dead Sea water levels have shrunk by about one-third and are no longer being replenished by an adequate inflow of fresh water from the Jordan River .
The sinkholes are created as the Sea recedes, exposing a 30-meter layer of salt pockets lying deep beneath the land surface. As the newly exposed lake bottom is inundated with rainwater or flash floods from the desert, the freshwater seeps underground, dissolving the salt. This leads to the creation of underground cavities that collapse, and results in the creation of newly formed sinkholes .
These sinkholes can develop relatively quickly overnight, or they can develop more gradually over time . This makes the sinkholes not only unpredictable, but potentially very dangerous for both the people and the infrastructure located on the banks of the Dead Sea.
How are the sinkholes affecting the local environment and the surrounding communities?
The sinkholes pose a safety liability to tourists and local residents, and this has led to the closure of beaches, campgrounds, and many businesses, as well as an overall loss in tourist revenue for the region.
So far, there have not been any reports of deaths from the sinkholes, but there is always the possibility that such an event could occur .
Due to the potential hazards associated with the sinkholes, beaches along the shoreline are now being forced to close, and tourism in the area is now being seriously impacted, as the Dead Sea is considered to be a major tourist destination for tens of thousands of people every year.
Other negative impacts of the sinkholes have included downed power lines, and caravans and homes being swallowed. A few hikers have already been injured falling into the sinkholes .
The sinkholes are also becoming a problem for agriculture in the region, particularly date farming, where the trees are dying due to a lack of water and the date orchards are being abandoned.
If the Dead Sea dries out, the ecosystem with natural freshwater spring-fed pools that surrounds the Sea will die too. The desiccation of the Dead Sea will negatively impact many of the local plant and wildlife populations that depend on the springs, including tamarisk trees and other native plants, fish, migratory birds, insects and other invertebrates, hyrax, ibex, wild boar, desert cats, hyenas, jackals, and wolves .
What would it take to stop these sinkholes from forming?
In order to stop the sinkholes from forming, the Dead Sea will need to have a high inflow of freshwater restored to it. Currently, the volume of water that is supplied by the Jordan River to the Dead Sea is only about 5 percent of what it once was.
Even with an increased inflow of fresh water, it is estimated that it would take decades to restore the lake .
How can the Dead Sea be saved from drying?
Because of the degree of ecological damage that has occurred to the Dead Sea, it would require a great deal of planning and intervention to restore it, including international collaboration, as the Dead Sea borders Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel .
Unfortunately, while the problem of a dying Dead Sea is well-recognized by the countries in the Dead Sea region, finding a solution for this problem in a region with many conflicts and tensions is not going to be easy, and many costly technologically-based solutions are likely to be unaffordable for many of the national governments that are involved.
Thus far, there have been a number of proposed ideas about bringing freshwater flow back into the Dead Sea, including building a connection between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea.
However, since the Red Sea is not a historical source of freshwater inflow for the Dead Sea, there is a possibility of developing environmental problems as a result, such as the formation of red algal blooms and a coat of white gypsum that could form on the top of the sea. There is also a high probability of seismic activity in a Red Sea-Dead Sea corridor that could lead to contamination of saltwater in freshwater aquifers .
In reality, perhaps the most practical and cost-effective solution to the Dead Sea desiccation, and to restore a greater flow rate into the Dead Sea, is to focus on regional water conservation. Using less water in the region, along with using desalination to provide water to the local populations such as those along Israel’s Mediterranean coast, would go a long way toward restoring the Jordan River’s historical flow.
Accomplishing such a feat, however, would require a great deal of collaboration among some of the most politically volatile populations in the world.
Currently, there are no major plans in place that would realistically accomplish a restoration of the Dead Sea.