The lowest point on Earth is front and center in a battle for the science (and the politics) of water.
While many land areas on Earth sit below current sea level, the lowest land area of them all is the shoreline of the Dead Sea Depression in Israel, Jordan, and Syria. It is approximately 1,355 feet (413 meters) below sea level.
The Dead Sea is not actually a sea but rather an endorheic basin: a lake that doesn’t flow into a river, sea or ocean. Depressions – like the Dead Sea Depression, David K. Lynch of Thule Scientific explains at geology.com – form when converging plates deform or when spreading centers open.
“The shoreline of the Dead Sea is the lowest dry land on Earth … However, this elevation is constantly changing,” Lynch notes. “The surface of the Dead Sea rises and falls as precipitation, evaporation, irrigation, salt production and other natural and human activities consume the water of the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and its tributaries.”
The Dead Sea Depression has no real competition at the moment for the title of the lowest point on Earth. The next closest, the shoreline of Lake Assal, the lowest point in Africa, is about 250 meters “higher” than the Dead Sea’s lowest point.
(Technically we realize that the Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench within the Pacific Ocean, is the deepest known point in the Earth’s seabed at a depth of almost 36,000 feet, which is deeper than Mount Everest is tall. We’re examining the planet’s lowest point not covered by water or ice.)
The Dead Sea is hardly just for trivia questions about elevation these days.
The Dead Sea’s water (which is almost ten times saltier than the ocean’s) level is sinking, Todd Pitock of the Natural Resource Defense Council, at nrdc.org, reported in 2017. The water’s retreat is allowing fresh groundwater to well up and dissolve the layer of salt within the land’s subsurface, the report continues, adding that the sinkholes to this point have swallowed palm trees, some trailers at a resort, and at least one car. The deepest pit could fit an eight-story building.
“Please don’t write that the Dead Sea is dying,” Ittai Gavrieli, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Israel, the government department responsible for monitoring the region, told Pitock, who notes that, while the situation is deteriorating, the Dead Sea is not going to disappear. Its water table will just keep sinking.
“It’ll continue to sink and will probably stabilize another 100 or so meters below its current level,” Gavrieli added.
Enter the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Project, dubbed “Red-Dead.”
The $900 million Red-Dead plan, agreed upon in 2013, aims to boost water supplies for Israel, the Palestinians, and Jordan, by diverting water from the Red Sea. They plan to turn some of it into fresh water, and pump the excess from the desalination process through a pipeline over the 120 miles separating the bodies of water into the Dead Sea, Dalia Hatuqa of Al Jazeera reported in 2017. The project’s goal is to replenish the Dead Sea’s dwindling levels and the resulting environmental impacts.
The report indicates that the Dead Sea’s water levels have been falling by about one meter per year. The NRDC notes that the project has a proposed finish date of 2019.
Dead Sea or no Dead Sea, the project “is primarily a massive water exchange between Israel and Jordan,” Pitock writes.
Critics, meanwhile, claim the agreement is less about water cooperation and more about water control.
In 2012, accused Israeli settlements and companies of “pillaging” the natural resources of the Dead Sea.
“The presence of settlers who directly utilize and profit from the Dead Sea wealth has severely exacerbated this situation and contributed to the overexploitation of the area, resulting in severe environmental damage,” Hatuqa wrote of the Palestinian human rights organization al-Haq’s report.
Israel counters criticism by pointing out that accords in place show it has full control over the area that includes the Dead Sea shore.
The Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee continues to examine the situation.