Scientists are looking to crystalline salt samples taken from 1,000 feet below the bed of the Dead Sea to understand the potential dangers of a warming climate, particularly in the Mideast. Their study suggests that as the region becomes more arid, environmental crises that occurred in the past could repeat themselves.
Already an incredibly dry area, scientists fear that climate change could drive rainfall down tremendously as happened 120,000 years ago, and again 10,000 years ago. Samples pulled from salt layers that show that in those years, rainfall plunged to as little as a fifth of modern levels.
In 2010, scientists drilled 1,500 feet into the deepest part of the seabed to retrieve the samples that recorded a 200,000 year history of the region’s climate. When drought conditions occur, precipitated salt forms a layer in the sediment that allows researchers to pinpoint rainfall levels at that time.
“All the observations show this region is one of those most affected by modern climate change, and it’s predicted to get dryer,” said Yael Kiro, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the study. The Dead Sea is the lowest spot on land, about 1,300 feet below sea level, and has a history of shrinking naturally with Earth’s environmental shifts.
In recent years the sea has dropped by about four feet a year, but not because of weather changes. Rapid increases in human development in the region and an increased demand for water has been draining the fresh water sources that contribute to the sea.
Water is a scarce resource in countries like Israel, Jordan and Syria, and the poorer nations struggle to find ways to cope with steep declines in rainfall. A record drought in Syria in 1998-2012 likely contributed to the brutal, ongoing civil war that has claimed more than 500,000 lives.
The sea that provides a basic human need to so many already suffers dramatically from natural changes in rainfall and temperature fluctuations, as the study demonstrated. But add to that the human impact on climate change and the environment and it could mean disaster for the Dead Sea those who rely on it for water.
Top photo by Christian Haugen, CC BY 2.0
Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.