Is the Dead Sea really dead?

By: Alia Hoyt

In name only, the Dead Sea may not sound like the most charming place in the world to visit. Despite its gloomy moniker, however, the salty body of water is known for its ability to bolster the mind, body and soul. Only one of the many fascinating aspects of the Dead Sea is the fact that, since its surface is 1,300 feet (396 m) below sea level, its shore is the lowest dry point on Earth [source: Ancient Sandals]. Located in a valley that is surrounded by the West Bank, Jordan and Israel, the Dead Sea covers roughly 250 square miles (402 square km) [source: Washington Post]. Given its location, it's no real surprise that the Dead Sea (or the "Salt Sea," as it was referred to in the Old Testament) has an extensive religious history. Also, its onetime main tributary, the Jordan River, is believed by many to be the place where Jesus was baptized [source: Washington Post].

So what exactly gives the Dead Sea its name? The Dead Sea is different from all other bodies of water on Earth because it's incredibly salty, with a saline level between 28 and 35 percent. By comparison, the world's saltiest oceans are only 3 to 6 percent [source: Ancient Sandals]. The Dead Sea owes its high mineral salt content to several factors. First, it's completely landlocked, so any fresh or saltwater that flows into it from the Jordan River and other tributaries (estimated at six and a half million tons per day) is trapped -- until it evaporates [source: Catholic Encyclopedia]. Evaporation happens quickly because that portion of the world is, to put it mildly, extremely hot. When the water evaporates, the salty minerals are left behind, causing the remaining water to become more and more concentrated with salt [source: Extreme Science].


Of course, plain old table salt isn't what gives the Dead Sea its oomph. Rather, at least 35 different kinds of mineral salts (like those found in oceans) are present in massive quantities. Some of the minerals present include potassium, bromine, calcium, magnesium and iodine [source: Atlas Tours]. These are the salts that give the Dead Sea its name. Any living creature or plant (even seaweed) that dares enter these saline-charged waters dies pretty much instantly. Only simple organisms like microbes can survive the harsh conditions [source: Extreme Science]. The Dead Sea is simply too salty for anything else to exist.

On the next page, we'll discuss how the Dead Sea itself is "dying."


Threats to the Dead Sea

Salt crystals on the banks of the Dead Sea show evidence of the receding water level.
Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

Unfortunately for the Dead Sea and those who cherish its historic and cultural significance, the body of water may be on track to disappear by the year 2050 [source: BBC News]. The organization Friends of the Earth (Middle East) attributes the ever-decreasing levels of water in the Dead Sea to the simple fact that less water is being brought in via the Jordan River and other tributaries. This is due to human intervention in the form of pipelines, dams and storage reservoirs diverting the water to other areas. Friends of the Earth claims that these practices have already wreaked havoc on the Dead Sea, causing its surface area to decrease by one-third [source: Friends of the Earth (Middle East)].

The group also asserts that the water level isn't all that stands to be affected. The area surrounding the Dead Sea is home to a diverse ecosystem of plants, birds and other wildlife, all of which depend on the body of water for survival[source: BBC News]. Of course, proponents for the diversion of Dead Sea water point to the ongoing drought in the area, claiming water should be put to domestic, agricultural and other uses [source: BBC News]. One potential solution to this problem is the construction of a canal that would channel water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The project is known as the Two Seas Canal, and would be 112 miles (180 km) long. Opponents of the canal claim that it would damage the integrity of the seawater in the Dead Sea, forever changing its mineral makeup [source: National Geographic News]. Detractors also worry that freshwater aquifers in the area could be compromised by the Dead Sea's water in the event of an earthquake.


Activists are also working to limit development in the area surrounding the Dead Sea. The area is controlled by Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian governments, all of which Friends of the Earth claims are advocating development that could threaten the environmental and cultural integrity of the area. Plans would include the construction of more hotels and other industrial complexes [source: Friends of the Earth (Middle East)]. Friends of the Earth says that a more coordinated effort between the governments could protect the environmental integrity of the area.

Despite these ongoing threats to the Dead Sea, this extraordinary body of water is capable of many rejuvenating powers. Next, we'll go into detail about the various therapeutic capabilities of the Dead Sea.



Minerals and Mud: Life-giving Qualities of the Dead Sea

An Israeli hiker covered in Dead Sea mud basks in the sunlight. The Dead Sea's mud has proven therapeutic qualities.
Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

As we've learned, more than 35 different types of minerals can be found in the Dead Sea's waters, and many people vouch wholeheartedly for the life-altering qualities these minerals possess. In fact, these minerals are considered so valuable that a company called Dead Sea Works has 1,600 employees who work day and night to harvest them [source: Bible Places]. The mineral salts are believed to cure or alleviate the symptoms of ailments ranging from skin problems such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis to rheumatic diseases, like various forms of arthritis and fibromyalgia.

The Dead Sea Research Center proposes a seven-step treatment program for clients seeking dermatological relief. To begin, the patient spends some time in the sun on the banks of the Dead Sea -- the sun's harmful UV rays are filtered due to the high atmospheric pressure in the area [source: Elliman]. This step is followed by a bath in the Dead Sea itself, then application of emollient creams, thermo-mineral baths and mud soaks, scalp treatment, optional psychological counseling and a follow-up consultation with a medical professional. Treatments for the rheumatoid diseases are more varied but often include sulfur baths, salt baths, sodium chloride baths, and of course, baths in the Dead Sea itself [source: Dead Sea Research Center].


Patients dealing with respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive lung disease and cystic fibrosis often benefit from the area's high oxygen levels, coupled with the environment's low pollution and allergen levels. The Dead Sea Research Center claims that these factors allow patients the opportunity to get their symptoms under control without relying so heavily on medical equipment. Dead Sea therapy is also used to treat Crohn's Disease, orthopedic ailments, heart disease and hypertension [source: Dead Sea Research Center].

Tourists who don't seek the Dead Sea for specific health treatments can enjoy the water simply for relaxation. In fact, thanks to its unbelievably high mineral content, the Dead Sea is incredibly dense. This high-density level allows people to float without any effort whatsoever -- they are able to read books or bob carelessly in the water. Some Dead Sea swimmers think of the water as a natural health spa: The water, minerals, mud and sunlight have naturally nourishing effects on skin. Black mud found along the shoreline is also rich in minerals and is often used in skin treatments [source: Atlas Tours]. Many famous visitors have flocked to the Dead Sea over the years to experience its positive effects, including Cleopatra and King Herod the Great [source: Visit Jordan].

Although the Dead Sea may be biologically dead, it maintains its historical ability to nourish the mind and body through its therapeutic qualities. Life may not be sustainable within its waters, but it most certainly thrives along its shores.­


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Anderson, John Ward. "For Dead Sea, a Slow and Seemingly Inexorable Death." Washington Post. May 19, 2005.
  • "Dead Sea." (Sept. 15, 2008).
  • "Dead Sea." Catholic Encyclopedia. (Sept. 15, 2008).
  • "Dead Sea, Jordan." (Sept. 15, 2008).
  • "Dead Sea - Location Profile." Ancient Sandals. (Sept. 15, 2008).
  • Dead Sea Research Center. (Sept. 15, 2008).
  • Elliman, Wendy. "The Living Dead Sea." Focus on Israel. April 1999 (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • Friedman, Matti. "Dead Sea Scroll Put on Rare Display in Israel." National Geographic News. May 13, 2008 (Sept. 15, 2008).
  • Hawley, Caroline. "Dead Sea to Disappear by 2050." BBC News. Aug. 3, 2001.
  • "Lowest Elevation…Dead Sea." Extreme Science. (Sept. 15, 2008).
  • Milstein, Mati. "Diverting Red Sea to Save Dead Sea Could Create Environmental Crisis." National Geographic News. Dec. 14, 2006.
  • O'Neil, L. Peat. "Bible-Era Artifacts Highlight Archaeology Controversy." National Geographic News. April 18, 2003 (Sept. 15, 2008).
  • Whitehouse, David. "Dead Sea Keeps Falling." BBC News. Jan. 22, 2002.