On the other side of the globe right now, there’s a race against time to save one of the world’s great wonders: the Dead Sea. Located between Israel and Jordan, this landmark is receding at a rapid rate. In fact, scientists say its surface area is now barely half of what it was 100 years ago. Scott Thuman investigates from the Middle East and the lowest point on the planet’s surface.
At 1,400 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is a scientific oddity, a biblical reference, and a tourist destination all wrapped in one. But it’s disappearing at an alarming rate. In other words, the Dead Sea, in some ways, is dying.
Scott Thuman: I was here just four years ago when, where I am standing right now, I would have been about 12 feet under water.
And it’s nearing a fatal point in its timeline.
Gundi Shachal: All this plane, that ground plane — it was all covered in water.
Gundi Shachal, an ecologist, has lived in the mountains above the Dead Sea for more than 40 years. From this spot, locals and travelers alike could be seen bathing in the mineral-rich mud and famously floating in this salty haven as if they weigh nothing at all.
Scott Thuman: Is this the biggest visual, the easiest way for us to understand how far down the water has gone?
Gundi Shachal: In '83, the water, the shoreline, came up to [that] building. People would leave the building and go down over a little bridge, and they were right at the sea.
Scott Thuman: So this was all a busy camping area here?
Gundi Shachal: Yes, people loved it here. People would come sometimes for the whole summer.
Scott Thuman: It’s fascinating to me that where we are right now, we’d be under water not terribly long ago.
Gundi Shachal: Yes.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Dead Sea was about 50 miles long, and needed more than 160 billion gallons of water to maintain its size. The majority of that water originating far north of Israel in Lebanon and Syria, flowing downstream into the Jordan river, which feeds the Dead Sea. But in recent decades, a series of tributaries and dams from other areas and farmers taking water for themselves has slowly choked the supply. Today, the Dead Sea is closer to 30 miles long and receives less than 10% of what it needs.
Scott Thuman: We’re at the site right now that many people consider to be where Jesus was baptized. It’s the Jordan river. Jordan is indeed just feet away on the other bank. We’re on the Israeli side. It’s a body of water that, for so long, people associated with purity. But these days, scientists tell us it is marred with sewage, saline, and agricultural runoff.
And the Dead Sea dropping about three feet a year, doing plenty of damage. Layers of other shoreline containing fresh water, when exposed to that highly-salty water and upstream runoff, mix into a toxic cocktail, eating away at land, creating massive sinkholes, big enough to buckle roads and swallow buildings whole.
Gundi Shachal: Nowadays, you cannot build anything all along the Dead Sea.
Critics also blame the disappearing sea on companies cashing in on what lies underneath.
Gidon Bromberg, EcoPeace Middle East: The Dead Sea's full of very attractive, very lucrative minerals.
We met with Gidon Bromberg along the banks of the Yarkon river in Tel Aviv. He previously addressed the United Nations on Middle East water issues and told us that companies producing fertilizer by evaporating seawater do potentially irreparable damage.
Gidon Bromberg, EcoPeace Middle East: We have a mineral extraction industry on the Israeli side and on the Jordanian side that are literally drying up the Dead Sea.
Scott Thuman: How bad is it?
Gidon Bromberg, EcoPeace Middle East: It's probably never going to completely disappear, but already, on the northern natural basin of the Dead Sea, there is no public beaches. This whole phenomenon of sinkholes is, what we call in the environment community, nature's revenge.
So he and others, exploring ideas to save it, by possibly pumping in more water from the nearby Red Sea. But if nothing is done, he warns, this wonder of the world will someday cease to amaze.
Shachal recently raised that prospect to a group of students.
Gundi Shachal: I asked our kids, "Would you like to show your kids the Dead Sea?" Because maybe there won't be any Dead Sea anymore. They said, "Oh, we can show it to them on the computer." That was their answer. Kids that grow up, they were born here. I said, "Oh, my God, everything is lost."
In the Dead Sea, I’m Scott Thuman.