picture of the day
The southern end of the Dead Sea.
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
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
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
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
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
Miocene era tectonic activity.
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?
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.
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."
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
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."
The Mystical Hymns of Orpheus, Zeus (Jove) is described
"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."
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
By Stephen Smith
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