The Shrinking Sea

With the world’s attention focused on climate change during the COP26 climate conference, the impact of human activity on the environment is being examined in detail.

One of the places significantly affected by human activity is the Dead Sea in Israel. A most unusual expanse of water in the midst of desert, the Dead Sea has lost a third of its surface area over the last 60 years.

The water recedes by roughly one metre each year, leaving behind a landscape that looks like that of the moon, with whitened soil punctuated by gaping sinkholes.

Those sinkholes can be more than 10 metres deep and are formed when underground salt deposits are dissolved by occasional flash floods, leaving the land above to collapse.

Dr Isaac Gertman, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Oceanography in Haifa says:

“The main problem is a lack of freshwater coming into the Dead Sea,
in which natural evaporation is strong.”

Lines of shrinkage on the Dead Sea shoreLines of shrinkage on the Dead Sea shore (photo: Menachem Lederman/Flash90)

That is because much of the freshwater coming down the River Jordan has been diverted to provide for communities, farming and industry in both Israel and Jordan.

Isaac says about 700 million cubic metres of water would be needed to restore the sea level to where it was in the year 1900.

“Natural runoff, including precipitation and floods, was about 300 million cubic metres per year.
Now it’s about 100 million cubic metres per year.”

One of the ideas suggested for supporting the Dead Sea is to build desalination plants on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, that could replenish the Sea of Galilee with freshwater which would partially restore the natural flow down the River Jordan.

The problem has been known for decades, but there has been no significant action to stop the dwindling water levels. That is despite the Dead Sea being a significant tourist attraction as the lowest point on the planet’s surface – now about 430 metres below sea level – and a source of healing minerals that have been shown to help people with skin conditions like psoriasis.

So, one wonders whether the current focus on our environment will finally prompt action to slow the shrinking of the sea.

A most unusual tactic for highlighting the problem was used in October, when 200 Israeli volunteers stripped naked on the banks of the sea.

After removing their clothes, the volunteers smeared white paint over their bodies and took part in a 3-hour photo shoot with American photographer Spencer Tunick.