Dead Sea region supports bountiful life, business

The Dead Sea, located between Israel and Jordan, appears like an accidental geographic feature. Man has been attracted to, and fascinated by, this inland salt water lake from prehistoric times through biblical history and even more so today.

In September 2011, I had a chance to float in the Dead Sea during a trip with my wife to visit our daughter, who was working in the Israeli West Bank city of Ramallah. Since the Dead Sea is eight times more salty than the ocean, I was buoyed up by the high viscosity, which resembles corn syrup.

My curiosity about the Dead Sea led me to the book, “Living Waters – Myth, History, and Politics of the Dead Sea” by Barbara Kreiger (1988). I learned the Dead Sea sits in a rift valley between two moving plates of Earth’s crust, extending from Turkey through the Middle East to Africa.

The surface of the water sits 1,388 feet below sea level, Earth’s lowest elevation on land. By comparison, Death Valley, Calif., the lowest land in North America, is only 282 feet below sea level.

The Dead Sea is 47 miles long, 11 miles wide and 1,300 feet deep. Geologists theorize three million years ago the Mediterranean Sea periodically flooded the below sea level area between what is now Israel and Jordan, creating a large bay with no outlet. Repeated flooding and water evaporation over a million years left behind salt in the water, which increased the salt concentration.

Eventually, salt deposits 2 miles deep piled up on the lake bottom. Two million years ago the land between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea rose, so flooding of the Dead Sea region stopped.

Salt at the bottom of the now isolated lake dissolved to create super-saturated water; hence the salinity became eight times greater than the oceans. The Dead Sea level was balanced between evaporation and inflow from the Jordan River to the north, numerous fresh water springs, and rain falling in local mountains.

In the last 30 years, the sea shoreline has receded 3 feet annually, due to removal of water from the Jordan River for crop irrigation, human consumption and industrial use, which worries environmentalists. Rainfall in Jerusalem, 20 miles to the west, totals 25 inches per year, but only 2 inches of rain falls on the Dead Sea annually.

Average summer temperature in the region of 103 degrees Fahrenheit, coupled with more than 300 cloudless days and health benefits from the sea salts make the Dead Sea a popular vacation destination for travelers and locals. Numerous spas along the Israeli side of the sea offer indoor bathing in Dead Sea water pools, beach access, hot spring mineral pools, Jacuzzi and steam baths, and mud wraps.

Highly prized and regarded Dead Sea mud gathered from springs entering the sea is sold around the world by the Ahava Company for treatment of dry, sensitive skin, anti-aging skin treatments, men’s moisturizers and curing joint pain. An added benefit of being 1,300 feet below sea level is increased air “thickness,” or pressure, which creates more oxygen, so breathing is easier. Likewise, at high elevations above sea level, air becomes thinner. The dense air filters out sun ultraviolet rays, permitting longer exposure in the sun before sun burning.

No fish, crustaceans or seaweed can survive in the high salinity, thus the name, “Dead Sea,” was given several thousand years ago. Some algae and bacteria species thrive in the high salinity.

The high concentration of numerous mineral salts in the water make separation and recovery of minerals profitable compared to recovery from ocean salt. Using evaporation ponds, the Dead Sea Works Company produces potash (potassium chloride) for fertilizer and explosives, raw materials for cosmetics, magnesium metal, deicers, industrial salts, table salt, bromine used in sedatives, and bath salts to treat skin conditions now sold in department stores around the world.

Ten years ago, more than one million tourists visited the Dead Sea to experience health benefits of sunshine, mud baths, floating in the water, hiking, and travelling the route of biblical persons like David, Herod and Jesus