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20 Jun 2021 1:02
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  •   Home > News > International

    The Dead Sea is disappearing, leaving behind a landscape shattered by sinkholes

    It was the backdrop for many of the epic events narrated in the Bible, and its waters are treasured for their supposed healing powers. But the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the planet, is slipping away.


    It's a natural wonder treasured for the "healing powers" of its mineral-rich water. But the sea at the lowest point on Earth is slipping away.

    On the shores of the Dead Sea, a village lies in ruins, crumbling into great craters opening up in the earth. 

    This was once the beachside resort at En Gedi, Israel, where families would come to float in the ultra-salty lake at the bottom of the world.

    Now it's a disaster zone, too dangerous to enter. In the late 1980s, the first sinkhole appeared here, forcing the tourist park to be abandoned.

    Since then the sinkholes have continued to appear with alarming frequency, leaving behind a shattered landscape. 

    A stretch of highway skirting the village has been swallowed, its surface crazed and buckled where the ground beneath has collapsed.

    The road might look long abandoned, but only five years ago cars were still using it, their drivers unaware that the ground was rapidly hollowing out. 

    In the past four decades over 6,000 sinkholes have appeared along the Israeli side of the Dead Sea, making large sections of the coast too dangerous to enter.

    What turned this natural treasure into a trap is simple: the Dead Sea is vanishing.

    Slipping away

    Carmit Ish-Shalom picks up a rock and tosses it into the abyss, then she counts: one, two, three ... on four, a faint plonk echoes up from the deep fissure in the bitumen.

    This narrow crack in the highway will one day collapse into a gaping sinkhole, but for now the surface is holding beneath our feet.

    A hydrogeologist who specialises in sinkholes, Dr Ish-Shalom lived at En Gedi for 10 years, studying the mysterious phenomenon plaguing these shores.

    She has seen dozens of sinkholes like this one open up at the beachside resort, and the problem is accelerating.

    The highway, built in 2010 with a supposedly sinkhole-proof design, was swallowed sooner than experts had predicted.

    "This is a disaster but it's not an earthquake," Dr Ish-Shalom says. "The main problem is the [Dead Sea's water] level. This is the reason for the sinkholes."

    At 430 metres below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on the planet, sitting at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley. 

    [EMBED new Datawrapper map]

    For millennia the lake has drawn visitors to float in its unusually buoyant, mineral-rich waters, which some say have healing properties. 

    The craggy hills of the surrounding Judean Desert provided the backdrop for many of the epic events narrated in the Bible.

    But the ancient sea is slipping away.

    The Dead Sea's water level is declining by more than a metre a year, and its surface area has shrunk by around a third since the 1960s. 

    Environmental groups say this is a man-made ecological disaster, the result of a fight over scarce water resources in an arid region.

    "This is a symbol of what man can do to nature without even knowing that he's doing it," says Dr Ish-Shalom.

    Bordered by Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, the Dead Sea's water level is largely maintained by inflows from the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River in the north.

    In recent decades that flow has been reduced to a trickle. 

    Farming and industrial-scale mineral extraction are removing more water than can be replenished through natural means.

    Over time, scientists like Dr Ish-Shalom have come to more fully understand the link between the plunging sea level and the expanding sinkhole fields. 

    Here's how it works.

    How the sinkholes form

    As the Dead Sea's water level drops, sections of previously inundated land become exposed above the waterline.

    The highly saline water leaves behind a thick layer of underground salt about 20 metres below the surface as it recedes.

    When fresh water from winter floods washes down from the mountains it infiltrates the ground, dissolving the salt layer and forming an underground cavity.

    The cavity eventually collapses, creating a sinkhole.

    Standing in the shattered landscape around the En Gedi tourist village, it's clear just how much the water level has fallen.

    A change room where bathers rinsed off after a swim is now hundreds of metres from the water's edge.

    For Dr Ish-Shalom, the real tragedy of the Dead Sea's decline is not just the ecological damage but the loss of access to its shimmering waters.

    The Israeli government, which controls the area, has been forced to close off large sections of the unstable shoreline.

    "It's really beautiful but I feel we can't really reach it," she says. "It's running away from us ... the beach is becoming more and more dangerous."

    Underground rivers

    Just south of En Gedi is a floodplain where winter rains wash down from the Judean mountains into the Dead Sea. 

    This place is now too dangerous for the general public to enter — only scientists are allowed to come here.

    The cracked and rocky landscape used to be underwater but now it's an expanding mudflat, pockmarked with dangerous sinkholes.

    It's the perfect place for scientists to study the role flash floods are playing in their formation.

    For more than a decade, geologists Gidon Baer and Ittai Gavrieli have been coming here to monitor the winter rains that rush over these dry riverbeds and into the Dead Sea.

    The senior scientists from the Geological Survey of Israel have observed dramatic changes in how water moves through the cratered landscape.

    "The flash floods used to flow directly to the Dead Sea," says Dr Baer. 

    "But since a few sinkholes formed along the riverbeds, flash floods started to be swallowed into those sinkholes ... and move eastwards towards the Dead Sea, but underground."

    Technology has played an important role unlocking the sinkholes' secrets. 

    The scientists place timelapse cameras above the streambeds to see where the water goes when it is swallowed by the earth — and where it comes out.

    They now know the Dead Sea sinkholes are not isolated or small, but are part of giant cave systems called karsts, which carry water underground between the sinkholes.

    "At the beginning, we really didn't know where [the flows] came out," Dr Baer says. "But in 2012, 2013, we started seeing these waters come out in other sinkholes."

    "So we put cameras in the places where the water was swallowed and cameras where the water came out, and we saw the time difference."

    "If you look at the water, it's totally calm," Dr Baer says.

    "A few hours after a flash flood you can really see a spring, a vigorous spring coming out of the water, brown, full of dust, full of clay carried by the water from the flash flood."

    Changes to this landscape are happening with surprising speed. In one riverbed a huge sinkhole field has formed in three years. 

    "It's a spectacular landscape that developed in a few years," says Dr Gavrieli.

    "Over time we envision that the entire area will be a huge sinkhole." 

    Using their cameras, water testing, drone videography and satellite monitoring, the scientists say they can now predict when a sinkhole will form. 

    This enables them to provide safety advice for planning and access.

    "We can give an estimation of where the dangerous areas are," says Dr Baer.

    "We use this information to map the entire area in terms of sinkhole hazard ... don't plan a settlement in an area where we can tell you that it's going to be prone to sinkholes."

    But what they don't propose is a way to stop the sinkholes forming in the first place. That would take the reintroduction of more than 1 billion cubic metres of water into the sea every year.

    One of the reasons the Dead Sea is sinking is because humans are taking the water out.

    Where all the water went

    At the south end of the Dead Sea, tourists float in the briny turquoise water, unaware they are not swimming in the natural sea. 

    There are no sinkholes here and the public beach has a stable shoreline. In this part of the lake, the water level is artificially controlled.

    Water is pumped in here, only to be evaporated. The Dead Sea's southern basin has been turned into an industrial landscape of shallow evaporation ponds, where huge factories in Jordan and Israel extract valuable minerals. 

    The factories, which make potash for fertiliser and a host of other products, use about 500 million cubic metres of water per year — roughly the volume of Sydney Harbour. They return about half of that into the sea, but still account for roughly 25 per cent of the water loss, according to the Geological Survey of Israel.

    To understand where the rest of the water is lost from the Dead Sea, you have to go north to its source, the Jordan River, where it flows from the Sea of Galilee. With its rich, verdant farmlands, it's hard to believe the Jordan valley is critically short of water.

    Like many arid parts of Israel and Jordan, the former desert is now intensively irrigated, requiring millions of cubic metres of water from the Sea of Galilee to sustain agriculture.

    In the 1950s, the new state of Israel diverted the flows in a nation-building project known as the National Water Carrier. 

    The network of pipes brought fresh water from the green north to the arid south, as well as to major cities on the coast. 

    Syria and Jordan also began to take water from the Jordan's tributaries, and in the mid-1990s Jordan began receiving water from the Sea of Galilee under a peace treaty with Israel. 

    The price was the loss of most of the flow down the Jordan River, the famous waterway central to the world's great monotheistic religions.

    In the Bible, the Jews crossed the Jordan River to enter the Holy Land. It's where Jesus was baptised.

    Its waters, though much diminished, remain central to Christian rituals, even if they are now mainly sewage and salty discharge from springs.

    The joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental group Ecopeace Middle East estimates less than 100 million cubic metres of water reach the Dead Sea every year, compared with historic flows of between 1,200 and 1,300 million cubic metres. 

    The Dead Sea is no longer replenished, losing billions of litres to evaporation in summer temperatures that have stretched to nearly 50 degrees Celsius.

    There are ambitious proposals to replace some of the water lost from the Jordan River and slow or even reverse the decline of the Dead Sea.

    A plan backed by the World Bank, the "Red to Dead" project, would see waste brine from a new desalination plant at the Jordanian port of Aqaba pumped north into the lake. 

    But Israeli geologist Ittai Gavrieli, who was an advisor on the project's impact, told Foreign Correspondent the amount of water would need to be limited, reducing its effect. 

    Dr Gavrieli believes enough water should be allowed into the sea to slow its decline while not imposing major changes.

    "Change that will not dilute the lake, that will not trigger biological blooming in the lake, or major precipitation of minerals that may whiten the surface of the lake," he says.

    Ecopeace Middle East says the Red-Dead canal is an expensive solution that ignores the root causes of the Dead Sea's decline. 

    It has proposed alternatives, including increasing the Jordan River's flow and introducing desalinated freshwater or treated sewage into the system. 

    There are several sticking points, including the lack of a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and deteriorating relations between Israel and Jordan. 

    But the biggest problem is the lack of water.

    "There is a serious water shortage in our region," Dr Gavrieli says.

    "If we want to be the one to transfer freshwater to the Dead Sea ... then is it feasible at all to bring in many cubic metres to the Dead Sea for them to evaporate, when there is a shortage of water in the region? Is anyone willing to invest such huge sums of money?"

    Instead, Dr Gavrieli wants people to accept, and enjoy, the changes, by turning the shoreline into "sinkhole parks", where people can visit and see the new landscape forming.

    "The scenery is really beautiful and the idea is, really, to find a safe path, and bring in tourists, and show them these wonders, because these are really unique," he says. 

    But that means accepting a future where the Dead Sea will keep declining, until scientists estimate it is about one third of its original size, and even saltier than it is today.

    "When people stopped the Jordan River from entering the Dead Sea, they didn't think that would be the price for it," says Carmit Ish-Shalom.

    "If our children say they want to save it, they can't even do it because it's too late. Everything that's happening here, it's because of us."

    Watch Foreign Correspondent at 8:00pm on ABC TV and iview, or streaming live on YouTube and Facebook.

    Credits

    • Reporting and photography: Eric Tlozek
    • Cinematography: Alon Farago and Abu Saada
    • Graphics: Andres Gomez Isaza
    • Additional photography: Tom Joyner, Iyar Swaed/Geological Survey of Israel
    • Timelapse video: Geological Survey of Israel
    • Digital production: Matt Henry

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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