Water And Oceanography

How the Dead Sea got its name

Imonikhe Ahimie's image for:
"How the Dead Sea got its name"
Image by: 

If the term sea is used, as it commonly is, to describe that great mass of salt water which covers some three quarters of the Earth's surface, then the Dead Sea is no sea at all, for at no point does it connect to that world-encircling mass of water. However, the term is also applied, usually in the form of a proper name, to many of the world's great lakes; in particular when the lakes in question are salt lakes. The Dead Sea is one such lake occupying a northern extension of the great East African Rift Valley and it lies along the border between the Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Israel.

The Dead Sea exhibits certain unique characteristics which clearly distinguish it from other such bodies of water. For one, its shore, situated at the lowest levels of the Great Rift Valley at about 396 meters (some 1,300 feet) below the mean sea level of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, is the lowest place on the Earth's land surface. In addition, the Dead Sea is the saltiest body of water known in the world with salt levels 7 to 8 times the levels found in ordinary seawater.

The extreme saltiness of the waters of the Dead Sea is a result of three factors. The first and more obvious one is that because there is no outlet for the waters that enter the Sea, there is a higher concentration of the mineral salts that are brought in by the River Jordan the only inflow of water into the sea; but this in itself does not fully account for the extreme saltiness of the water, for this is, after all, a characteristic that it shares with all other salt lakes. The second factor is that the Sea has no outlet, so that all salt and minerals that come into it stay there. The final factor is evaporation which, working in tandem with the already high salt levels, serves to increase the proportion of salts that are in the water. Summer temperatures around the Dead Sea are extremely high, frequently exceeding 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit). The result of these high temperatures is that more water is lost through evaporation than can adequately be replenished thereby causing the salts in the water to be even more concentrated. In fact, the Dead Sea is a shrinking Sea and it is estimated that up to third of the Sea's waters is made up of dissolved common salt (sodium chloride), potash, bromides and magnesium compounds.

It is this excessive concentration of salts (some 35 or so) in the water that has given the Sea its name, for fishes and other water dwelling animals as well as ordinary sea plants such as algae are unable to live in its waters as such high concentrations of salts would poison them. Consequently, insofar as those people who live in its environs were concerned, the body of water was dead as it could not harbor life and, as such, could not provide the food requirements upon which their own existence depended. But whilst it is true that the normal indicators of life are lacking in the waters of the Dead Sea, increasing scientific knowledge has shown that the Sea is not as bereft of life as it seems at first glance for, although the higher animals are unable to survive in the waters of the Dead Sea, some micro-organisms have been discovered who make their home in these waters and positively thrive in them.

Halobacterium halobium is one such organism which employs the process of photosynthesis to convert water and carbon dioxide (CO2) into the carbohydrates, such as glucose, that it requires to survive. Unlike green plants which utilize the green pigment, chlorophyll, to facilitate the process of photosynthesis however, H. halobium employs a purple pigment for its purpose. Another tiny inhabitant of the Dead Sea is the algae Dunaliella which may prove to be of extreme importance to humans in the future as it can processed to give petroleum-like hydrocarbon products.

Apart from these tiny creatures that dwell inside the Sea itself the area around the Sea is home to a large ecosystem of plants and wildlife whose survival is intimately tied to the body of water so that, in at least this sense, the Sea is also not a dead one.

But even if we have to wait a while before Dunaliella plays any meaningful part in satisfying man's seeming insatiable demand for hydrocarbon fuel, the Dead is, even now, now longer as dead as it once was to those who lived around it in former times. The extremely high concentrations of valuable minerals in the waters of the Sea has created a thriving extraction industry for mineral raw materials which are widely used in the chemical and fertilizer industries, thereby playing a role in supporting human existence. As an interesting footnote, the modern extractive industry that has grown around the Dead Sea is centered on a town called Sedon. Sedon is located in the region of ancient Sodom, near where, as the Biblical account relates, Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26)!  In addition, canals have been constructed which divert waters from the Sea for irrigation purposes in an area that is extremely prone to drought.

But this contribution to human life is, in the view of some, likely to kill the Sea entirely. The mining activities, they say, and the diversion of the waters has hastened the drying up of the Sea and some estimates suggest that by 2050, the Sea would have vanished for all intents and purposes. If these views are right, which is denied by proponents of mining and diversion activities, then the Sea would have truly lived up to its name. A possible solution to the problem is the proposition to build a canal that would link the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean Sea so that the waters lost from the Dead Sea would be replenished on a regular basis. If this Two-Canal project, as it is called, is brought to fruition, then the problem of a dying Sea would be removed but, as opponents of the scheme have pointed out, it would change the unique character of the Dead Sea forever and the attendant environmental problems may be much more than those which it is sought to cure.

More about this author: Imonikhe Ahimie

From Around the Web

  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.visitjordan.com/Default.aspx?tabid=67
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.foei.org/en/resources/publications/annual-report/2008/what-we-achieved-in-2008/member-groups/asia-pacific-oceania/middle-east-rescue-jordan-river-save-the-dead-see?searchterm=dea
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061214-dead-sea.html