The Dead Sea and the land that’s sinking away
The Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth and one of Israel’s most famous natural landmarks, sits some 1,300 feet below sea level. Stunning to behold, it stretches from the Judean Desert in the north to the Arava Desert in the south, lying between Israel and Jordan and surrounded by hills and mountains. Called the Dead Sea because it’s so salty no plants or living creatures could survive in its waters, it’s one of the wonders of Hashem’s world. It’s not actually a sea, though, despite its name. It’s a super salty lake; in Hebrew it’s called Yam Hamelach, or the Salt Sea.
Appearing as a sparkling turquoise oasis in the middle of the desert, it has long attracted flocks of visitors. Not only is it beautiful to see, but its high salt content is also a big attraction. Salt crystals and other salt formations decorate the landscape, giving it a kind of otherworldly, magical appearance. And because there’s so much salt in the water, the water is very dense (much denser than freshwater). Therefore, things that are less dense than the salty water will float — including people. Because our bodies are less dense than the water in the Dead Sea, we can almost “sit” on the water, which is just super cool. The salt and other minerals of the Dead Sea are also known for their healing properties, especially for skin problems.
Throughout history, people have come to soak in the Dead Sea’s healing waters, to see its beauty, and to bob on its surface. But the region surrounding it is starting to look a bit like dried-out Swiss cheese: pockmarked with holes — sinkholes, to be exact. (Sinkholes are big holes that open up in the ground when part of the Earth’s surface collapses.
This generally happens when whatever’s underground, like limestone, gypsum, sand, clay or the like, dissolves or shifts when a lot of water moves, shifts, or flows into or out of one concentrated area.)
But most of us can’t even see them.
In the areas where these sinkholes are found, the ground isn’t safe to walk on and the land has been blocked off to visitors, marked by warning signs: “No Entry” and “Danger: Open Pits.” Some of the sinkholes, which look like craters on the moon’s surface, can now only be reached by kayakers or boaters, because they quickly filled with water as soon as they opened, or they are located directly off the Dead Sea’s banks, while others can be viewed by gliders or drones. Some sinkholes are as much as 60 feet deep, others just 30 feet. They’re otherworldly and beautiful. They’re also dangerous and disastrous. And they aren’t disappearing anytime soon. In fact, they’re multiplying.
Welcome to Sinkhole Country
Once upon a time, the northern Dead Sea coast was home to farms, businesses, beaches and parking lots. Today, that area has fallen into ruin — both physical and financial. The Dead Sea sinkholes have swallowed plantations of date palms, gulped up buildings, and eaten portions of the road.
As more and more sinkholes gape wide open, huge tracts of land are declared to be unstable. Access to the area is blocked. Today, all that remains there is an otherworldly, hole-filled landscape, the smell of sulfur, and lots of silence. And the catastrophe is only growing…
The Shrinking of the Sea: A timeline
Stability: the flow of freshwater equals the amount of water evaporating
Israel builds a huge pumping station on the Kinneret, diverting water from the Jordan River that should have been flowing into the Dead Sea
Jordan and Syria divert the Yarmouk, a main tributary of the Jordan River, causing an even bigger water shortage to the Dead Sea
First Dead Sea sinkhole appears
40 sinkholes in the area are recorded
A peace treaty allows Jordan to take even more of Israel’s water, diverting additional water that would’ve flowed into the Dead Sea
Officials start expressing concern over the future of the Dead Sea
Sinkholes recorded on Israeli side reach 3000
TILL THE TAP RUNS DRY
Giant holes opening in the ground, swallowing up civilization as we know it — sounds a bit like something that belongs in parshas Korach, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s happening today — and it’s our (well, humanity’s) fault.
Here’s what scientists think is causing the problem:
Israel, Syria, and Jordan use tons of the water that should be flowing into the Dead Sea from the streams and rivers in the mountains that surround it. They kinda have to use this water because water in this region is in such short supply. But because they’re diverting it and using it for other purposes, it isn’t flowing into the Dead Sea, the salty lake isn’t getting naturally refilled like it should be.
But since so much of that water is used for irrigation and agriculture, maybe there are some smarter solutions that could be dreamed up in the future, like planting crops that use less water and making use of more “recycled” water. (Maybe you will be the one to invent something to solve this problem!)
Then, on top of the Dead Sea not getting its natural water supply replenished, there’s the Dead Sea Works plant, a huge factory that extracts minerals from the Dead Sea and the surrounding land. This factory basically takes up the entire southern basin of the Dead Sea and produces components for fertilizer and other products. There’s also Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which uses the region’s water for irrigation — and for bottling its popular “Ein Gedi” water brand. Extreme heat in the region (reaching some 120+ degrees F) contributes to the problem, too, because so much water evaporates. And, of course, when it comes to taking the blame, everyone points fingers at everyone else.
All this is causing the water level in the Dead Sea to drop… and drop… and drop. When its water disappears, the “coastline” changes, leaving large deposits of salt and unstable ground that can easily dissolve and collapse into sinkholes, especially when it rains. Underground water reserves are also disappearing, further destabilizing the land and making it more prone to sinkholes.
The Dead Sea has lost a third of its surface area and more than 100 feet of depth since the 1960s. That means it used to be deeper by about three school buses stacked nose-to-tail, one on top of the other. The water level in the Dead Sea is now decreasing by over three feet each year and is expected to drop at least 60 more feet in the next 20 years or so. Flash floods used to flow directly into the Dead Sea and contribute to its water levels, too. Today, they flow into sinkholes.
IS THE DEAD SEA REALLY DEAD?
And Why Does It Matter?
Although the Dead Sea is too salty for anything to live in its waters (other than some microorganisms and algae), the region is actually home to one of the world’s most complex ecosystems. Because the Dead Sea is fed by freshwater sources and there are underground freshwater aquifers, there are oases along the Dead Sea’s shores where numerous and diverse species of plants, fish, and mammals thrive. There are about 300 species of birds that visit the region (accounting for some 500 million birds, including eagles, kestrels, buzzards, storks, and pelicans) during their migration to and from Africa. Ibex and leopards call this region home, as do many other creatures.
The waters and minerals of the Dead Sea are reported to help people with various skin conditions, including psoriasis and eczema. And it’s simply a wondrous marvel to behold a lake so salty you can practically sit on it. The tourism to the region is a boon to the Israeli economy, which helps support the many Jews living in the country. Shouldn’t future generations be able to enjoy this wonderful example of Hashem’s creation, too?
Sinkholes are creepy. And ten percent of the Earth is apparently the type of terrain that’s prone to them. But don’t worry. Most sinkholes don’t form suddenly. They usually form slowly over months or years. It’s only in the last stage, when the hole at the surface erupts, that’s sudden.
Scientists use technology to monitor sinkhole-prone regions and predict where new sinkholes will open, hopefully saving people from danger and death. One of ways they track sinkhole activity is with time-lapse cameras that film water coming into the region and tracking where it disappears to. Scientists also use drones and satellites to keep an eye on the problem, especially in Israel.
Worried about sinkholes near you?
These are the signs to look for that could indicate a sinkhole is forming:
- New cracks constantly appear in the foundations of buildings
- Cracks form on interior walls
- Cracks and depressions appear in the ground
- Trees, fences, and lamp posts tilt or fall
- Sloping floors
- Rainwater disappearing into holes underground
- Slanting trees
- Other sinkholes in the region
A TOUR OF THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS SINKHOLES
Sinkholes aren’t just an Israeli problem. The earth can collapse anywhere, from inside cities to deep in the ocean, even if the causes are different. Sometimes, sinkholes result from man-made mess-ups and sometimes they occur naturally, or as combinations of the two. They’re most common in “karst terrain,” like in the Dead Sea region, where underground areas can be eroded or dissolved by water, or where underground caves collapse. Sometimes they occur after a huge water main break or in areas with massive rainfall. Or they can be caused by construction that changes the way water drains underground. They can be only a few feet wide or can form craters that span a thousand feet or more.
In 2016, five lanes of a highway simply vanished when a 100-foot-wide sinkhole opened in the Japanese city of Fukuoka. The 50-foot-deep sinkhole sucked down the pavement and then filled up with water. Japanese road crews fixed it up in only a few days!
Xiaozhai Tiankeng, China
Widely considered the world’s largest sinkhole, this double sinkhole (one inside the other) is around 2,000 feet long, 1,760 feet wide, and over 2,100 feet deep. It even contains a waterfall. It was discovered in 1994 during a national project to map caves.
National Corvette Museum, Kentucky
At Kentucky’s National Corvette Museum in 2014, a 60-foot-wide hole opened up in the ground, pulling eight Corvettes 30 feet underground. The cars were later extracted by crane. And the museum kept them nice and dusty, using the sinkhole-sucked Corvettes as an essential part of their display.
Guatemala City, Guatemala
In 2010, broken sewer pipes and floodwater from a tropical storm caused a 65-foot-wide hole to open in the ground, sucking down a three-story factory with it. The 100-foot-deep sinkhole led to the death of 15 workers.
In 2013, a 1,000-foot-wide sinkhole opened near a construction site, pulling down some five stores and part of an additional building. Thankfully there were no injuries.
Sinkholes made the news in Israel again, in June 2021, when a huge one opened in the parking lot of Shaare Zedek Medical Center, swallowing a bunch of cars. Thankfully, there were no injuries. Nearby construction was blamed.
In May 2008, a large sinkhole formed in Daisetta, a suburb of Houston, Texas, when an underground rock salt table collapsed. The 656-foot-wide hole, which formed in only one day, swallowed several cars, oil drilling equipment, and oil tanks into its 246-foot-deep pit. Within a few weeks, rains had begun filling it, creating a seven-foot-deep lake… that became home to a seven-foot alligator!
THE GROUND OPENS UP
As the water of the Dead Sea level drops, the coastline of the Dead Sea changes and the area’s underground freshwater reserves (known as aquifers — ah-kwih-furz) shrink or flow inward. As this happens, a huge and ancient layer of rock salt is exposed. When this salt gets rained on, it dissolves. And what do you think happens next?
The land surface becomes unstable, and BOOM: it collapses. A sinkhole is born. Well… maybe not boom exactly. The Dead Sea region sinkholes usually take a few years to develop, though in some places, sinkholes open instantaneously. And when the top surface of the ground collapses, that’s usually pretty quick.
According to geologists, there are already around 7,000 sinkholes in the Dead Sea area. And that count is expected to double over the coming years. Yikes!
Dead Sea sinkholes are single, individual holes in the ground — and they’re not small either. The sinkholes are part of giant underground cave systems called karsts. (That’s the technical topological term in English for the type of landscape where dissolving bedrock has created sinkholes, if you wanna be fancy like that.) These caves are where water flows underground between the sinkholes. Some scientists think that within the coming years, the entire region will be one giant sinkhole.
There isn’t much that can be done to stop the problem, which was created by people who had no idea what their actions would cause.
Researchers say that even if the Dead Sea Works and other factories are shut down, it’s too little, too late. While some scientists say that pumping water to the region could help, it would not fix the problem — unless they can somehow bring some 1 billion cubic metres of water into the Dead Sea every year, which, let’s face it, isn’t going to happen. It’s just too expensive and there isn’t enough water in the region.
While nature protection groups are lobbying governments to stop sucking the region dry, legislation (if it ever passes) would only keep the problem from getting even worse.
So, what’s to be done with a region that’s pockmarked with dangerous holes and only getting worse? Some are in favor of basically just blocking off the danger areas with more and more “No Entry” signs and carrying on as best as we can, adapting to the changing landscape and making the necessary adjustments so that businesses and tourism can continue to operate.
One example is the Ein Gedi Spa, which was built along the Dead Sea’s waterline over 20 years ago. The resort used to sit on the water. Today it’s about a mile from the shore. The spa simply uses a shuttle service to bring guests to and from the beach… and extends the path each year as the water recedes further and further.
Then there’s Ein Bokek. Most people think the water in front of the hotels in the Ein Bokek area is the Dead Sea itself. But it’s not. That water over there actually dried up by the 1980s. What you see in the region today is really an artificial reservoir created by the Dead Sea Works, which pumps water from the northern to the southern part of the lake.
Others are trying to revive the region’s economy with sinkhole tourism.
Kayak tours let visitors explore the sinkholes — which are fascinating and beautiful — in a safe way. Other tourism leaders are trying to develop safe hiking trips to explore the region; of course, hikers must watch every step they take. “Sinkhole parks” would allow visitors to explore the area as they would any other national park.
Tours of the region are captivating because the landscape is ever-changing, meaning people can visit over and over again and see something different each time: lace-like sheets of salt, cubic salt crystals, wrinkled white sheets of calcium deposits, colorful layers of mud and sediment, and more. According to the mindset that sees opportunity in sinkholes, sinkholes are “exceptional geological phenomena” and are here to stay, so we might as well make the most of them — with careful safety monitoring, of course.
What do you think?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 938)
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