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Hidden Life of the Dead Sea

November 13, 2017

by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer

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The turquoise blue waters of the Dead Sea shimmer in the sunshine like an exotic jewel set between the Judean Hills of Israel and the Moab Mountains of Jordan. For millennia, this natural wonder has cast its allure over people who have come to seek the healing properties of its mineral-laden waters and nutrient-rich black mud. Herod the Great is said to have used the Dead Sea as his personal spa; and legend has it that the Queen of Sheba received a gift of Dead Sea salts from King Solomon. During the Roman rule of Judea, Mark Anthony gave Cleopatra the rights to the Dead Sea region for her own cosmetic and medicinal factories so she could preserve her legendary beauty.

Devoid of Life

The Dead Sea supports an ecosystem that is rich in diverse plants and animals such as ibex and leopards, and 300 species of birds. Despite that—and its renowned therapeutic properties—the Dead Sea itself, as its name suggests, sustains no life—no fish and no vegetation. Nothing can live here because the water, at 33% salinity, is 10 times that of the world’s oceans. Pillars of crystallized salt protrude from the shallow waters along the shore and testify to its extremely high salt content.

Life in the Depths

Yet, scientists still believed that there was life lurking in its depths. Strange concentric ripples on the surface suggested that something was happening below the surface. Exploration of the Dead Sea was almost impossible until recently when hi-tech scuba gear was developed to handle the extreme conditions. Even a small amount of seepage in a diver’s mask could prove fatal; a diver who accidentally ingested the salty water could suffer asphyxiation.

With diving technology up to speed, scientists from Ben-Gurion University braved the depths in 2011 and discovered something amazing. Almost 1,000 feet (304 m) below the surface on the Dead Sea floor, about 30 deep craters were found, some as much as 50 feet (15 m) wide and 65 feet (20 m) deep. Bubbling up from the craters were jets of fresh water from underground springs. And around these jets were what scientists describe as “biofilms,” mats of bacteria carpeting the surrounding rocks and nourished by the jet streams. Green mats coated the tops of the rocks and white mats covered the bottoms, each type of bacteria adapting to the fluctuating environment of fresh water and hypersalinity. Bacteria that could survive in both fresh water and salt water had never been found before.

Healed Waters

Also known as the Sea of the Arabah and the Salt Sea, the Dead Sea is primarily referred to in the Bible as a demarcation line for the tribal territories of Israel, and we know it as the place where God smote the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone. But the prophet Ezekiel had a curious vision about the future of the Dead Sea. He saw a river of fresh water flowing from under the threshold of the Temple in Jerusalem. When the river reached the Dead Sea, its waters became fresh and many types of fish thrived there.

This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes (Ezek. 47: 8–9).

Gone Fishing

Along the shores of the Dead Sea, thousands of dangerous sinkholes have appeared, created by fresh water dissolving the salt deposits left by rapidly receding water levels, causing the ground above it to collapse. The massive sinkholes have already swallowed palm groves, buildings and even a road. But there seems to be good news: the sinkholes are filled with fresh water—and thousands of fish. Some people believe the prophecy from Ezekiel is in the process of fulfillment. Reportedly, one prophecy-believing Israeli has paid for the fishing rights to the Dead Sea. Others claim to have put their money where their faith is and purchased Dead Sea fishing licenses.

An Ecological Disaster?

In the meantime, seven million tons of water evaporate from the lake’s surface every day. National Geographic reports that the water levels have fallen by 80 feet (25 m) in the last 40 years, and this unique body of water may be an ecological disaster waiting to happen, with predictions that it will all but disappear by 2055. Experts believe a couple of options are available to replenish the vast amounts of water being lost to evaporation: to naturally reintroduce the flow of the Jordan River into the Sea by reducing or eliminating its diversion for drinking, factory and irrigation use; or to artificially bring water from the Red Sea via a 140-mile (225-kilometer) conduit to the Dead Sea.

However, there may be a third option: Some scientists believe the Dead Sea should be left alone without human intervention. Core samples taken from the bottom of the lake reveal that it has faced dramatic fluctuations in water levels through eons and still survived. God promised to heal the waters, and that means there will still be water in the Dead Sea to heal when that time comes. Along with the rainfall and runoff flowing into the lake and those life-giving underground springs continuing to bubble up, we can live in expectation that the Giver of Life is going to do something marvelous with the Dead Sea long before it ever disappears.

Photo Credit: eFesenko/shutterstock.com

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