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The southern end of the Dead Sea. Credit: NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS
and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team.


Oct 20, 2008
The Dead Sea

The lowest spot on Earth has been the scene of literary cataclysms involving the destruction of cities in rains of fires. Could electric discharges have inspired those stories?

Yam Hamelakh, "The Salt Sea," is the Hebrew name for the Dead Sea. It is called "dead" because nothing can live in brine that contains ten times more salt than the ocean. It is 68 kilometers long by 11 kilometers at its widest point. The surface of the Dead Sea lies 420 meters below sea level, making it the lowest elevation on Earth. The waters reach a maximum depth of 330 meters.

Salt has long been associated with the Dead Sea. Because polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other materials manufacturing use salt from the Dead Sea in the chemical streams feeding production lines, the level of the great saline lake has been falling rapidly in recent years. Reports vary, but a drop of more than one meter per year has been measured in the center.

Israel has been expanding its use of the Jordan River (the source of water for the Dead Sea) for growing crops in the desert, so the pressure of irrigation, coupled with the increased demand for salt by the chemical industry, means that evaporation ponds and diverted water flow are affecting the region more today than in previous years.

Current geological theories describe the Dead Sea as part of a rift structure extending from Turkey down to the eastern portion of the Rift Valley in Africa. Scientists say that bedrock on either side of the Dead Sea rift was once connected before whatever geological event tore the strata apart. The eastern side of the lake is characterized by extensive faults, extinct volcanoes, and abundant hot springs, indicating some heat source that continues to be active.

Although the Dead Sea is said to part of a geologic rift system, the exact origin of its unique environment remains unsettled. Most geologists believe it to be the result of faulting in some form or another—whether from vertical displacement or from horizontal crustal movement and overlapping tectonic plates has not been determined. It is thought to have formed over 20 million years ago during extensive Miocene era tectonic activity.

But the age estimate is open to question. Rather than being created 20 million years ago at the end of the Tertiary Period, there is cogent evidence for an age younger than 50,000 years, with some geophysicists placing the date closer to the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago. How to explain such variations?

By calculating the amount of magnesium flowing into the Dead Sea from various sources, then determining the amount actually present in its waters, the 50,000 year estimate is found. However, increased flow from the Jordan River in the past, as well as increased activity from thermal springs surrounding the sea, could dramatically reduce that figure. When the proportions of sodium and magnesium in the Jordan River are compared with those elemental ratios in the Dead Sea, the derivation is a mere 6000 years.

However, since inflow from sources on the bottom of the inland sea cannot be estimated (although water levels seem to show that submerged sources exist), the Dead Sea's age could be less than that, perhaps 5000 years. That puts its formation within the time of historical record keeping.

One well-known story from the Dead Sea locale is that of Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt during the catastrophic destruction of two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. Apart from the narrative contained in the Hebrew bible, classical historians also described the "cities of the plain" and their sudden obliteration.

The Torah relates: "And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar."

But then: "The Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground."

Tacitus wrote that Sodom and Gomorrah were obliterated by a thunderbolt: "Not far from this lake lies a plain, once fertile, they say, and the site of great cities, but afterwards struck by lightning and consumed. Of this event, they declare, traces still remain, for the soil, which is scorched in appearance, has lost its productive power. Everything that grows spontaneously, as well as what is planted by hand, either when the leaf or flower have been developed, or after maturing in the usual form, becomes black and rotten, and crumbles into a kind of dust."

In The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus, Zeus (Jove) is described as:

"Jove, who shak'st with fiery light
The world, deep-sounding from thy lofty height.
From thee proceeds th' etherial lightning's blaze,
Flashing around intolerable rays.
Thy sacred thunders shake the blest abodes,
The shining regions of th' immortal Gods.
Thy pow'r divine the flaming lightning shrouds
With dark investiture in fluid clouds."

Perhaps the ancient narratives describing destructive lightning "from heaven," or launched by Zeus of the Thunderbolt, might be based in an actual event that electrically machined the Dead Sea.

By Stephen Smith

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  EXECUTIVE EDITORS: David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Steve Smith, Mel Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Brian Talbott

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