Below Sea Level: The World's Ten Lowest Points of Land
Salton Sea, California
Introduction. Unknown to many is the fact that there is dry land below the level of the ocean. It sounds counter-intuitive but our planet has a number of dry patches of land which occur, unbelievably, below 0 feet - or mean sea level. The origins of these areas, featured below, is mostly the result of two geological and geographical phenomena: 1. a rift valley, or an area on the surface of the earth which is being split or rended apart, causing the ground to 'drop' resulting in a graben and 2. an area of the earth's surface which was formerly covered by water, such as a lake or sea. Dry climates, or deserts, are handmaidens of these two aforementioned phenomena as previously submerged areas have gradually been evaporated leaving dry ground below sea level. In other instances, the most famous being in Netherlands, people have reclaimed land from the sea or a lake and built protective walls around the reclaimed land, and often the areas reclaimed fall slightly below sea level.
1. Lammefjord, Denmark & Zuidplaspolder, Netherlands. Western Europe’s two lowest points are split between two areas in Denmark and the Netherlands respectively, each 23 feet below sea level (-7 meters). Unlike the other areas on this page both low points are the result of human-induced land drainage. The polders in Netherlands are areas that were reclaimed from the sea by the Dutch since the 13th century. Land was drained and a wall was built up around it to protect it from the sea, not unlike natural levees that formed in the lower Mississippi near New Orleans leaving some areas around the Crescent City five to seven feet below sea level. Similar to Zuidplaspolder, Lammefjord in Denmark was reclaimed to make room for agricultural land. An arm of the Isefjord, it was finally pumped dry of water in 1943, and a dyke was constructed to keep water out.
2. Lake Eyre, Australia. Occasionally this basin will fill with water temporarily turning it into Australia’s largest lake, but the occasion is only ephemeral. Most of the time the Lake Eyre Basin in South Australia is the continent’s lowest point at 49 feet below sea level (15 meters). Filled with a salt pan and having no outlets, similar to many of the earth’s below-sea-level basins, Lake Eyre is typically hot for most of the year and located in a desert. The basin floor is the remnant of an ancient lake bed.
3. Salton Sea, California, USA. The Salton Sea sits in a graben in the southern California desert, submerging part of the otherwise exposed San Andreas rift zone between two continental plates, not unlike the Dead Sea rift zone between Israel and Jordan, the lowest spot on earth. The Salton Sea is 234 feet (71.3 meters) below sea level and is a saline lake, the largest lake in California. With a maximum depth of 43 feet (13 meters), the lake’s deepest point is only 5 feet higher than Death Valley’s Badwater. The lake was formed in 1905 after heavy rains swelled waters enough to overrun canals in the Imperial Valley. The excess water flowed back into the basin to the north. Various settlements have attempted to exploit the lake recreationally with some sporadic success but the Salton Sea remains threatened by increasing levels of salinity and fertilizer runoff from the Imperial Valley. Still it remains an important bird migratory stop on the North American flyway. Fishing for Tilapia is popular as it's the only species that can survive the levels of salinity here at 5.0% w/v.
4. Death Valley, California, USA. This is the lowest, driest, and hottest place in North America. The ancient lakebed which serves as the floor of this graben is 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level and the lowest point is known as ‘Badwater’. Geologically, Death Valley, like many other deep valleys in the same region, is the result of a block of the earth’s crust sinking as the ‘skin’ gets stretched forming the basin and range region of the area collectively known as the Great Basin. Interestingly there is a marker on the cliff overhead which denotes ‘Sea Level’, or zero feet. Across the salt flat is the summit of Telescope Peak which rises to more than 11,000 feet above sea level – a huge contrast in elevations and life zones respectively. Death Valley is within Death Valley National Park in the Mojave Desert of California and is easily accessed by roadways. Not to anyone’s surprise it is not often visited in the summer because of the extreme heat.
5. Argentina: Laguna del Carbon, Bajo del Gualicho, Salina Grande and Saline Chica. Within Argentina are all of the significant areas in South America that are below sea level. Among them is the lowest place in the southern and western hemisphere respectively, the Laguna del Carbon which bottoms out at -344 feet (-105 meters). All three areas are located in the southern provinces of Argentina. The Laguna del Carbon, in Santa Cruz Province, is an endorheic salt lake, meaning it has no outflow or is in a closed basin. Bajo del Gualicho, in Rio Negro Province, is 236 feet below sea level (-72 meters). Best known for it wildlife, the Valdes Peninsula in Chubut Province, is home to the barren Salina Grande and Salina Chica which have a low elevation of -138 feet (-42 meters).
6. Caspian Sea/Caspian Depression. The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed body of water in the world and its shore is 92 feet below sea level (-28 meters). It sits at the bottom of the largest area in the world below sea level straddling the borders of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. It’s a salt-lake and considered endorheic having no natural outflow. The deepest dry point of this huge depression lies in Kazakhstan. Known as the Caspian Depression in general, the low point, Karigiye, is 433 feet (–132 meters) below sea level which is a karst trench on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea.
7. Qattara Depression, Egypt. Africa is home to the largest number of places below sea level and in particular North Africa has the most locations below sea level. The Qattara Depression in Egypt’s Libyan Desert, Africa’s second lowest point, is a huge area covering over 7,000 miles square of land, twice the size of Lebanon, below sea level, averaging close to 200 feet below sea level (-70 meters). The maximum depth below sea level reaches -436 feet (-133 meters). An endorheic basin, the Qattara Depression is very dry but supports oases, of which the most famous are Siwa and Cana, both inhabited. Salt pans, dunes, and bizarre wind-eroded rocks are common in the Qattara Depression. Other areas in North Africa below sea level include Sebkha paki Tah, Morocco, (-55 meters/-180 feet below sea level), Sabkhat Ghuzayyil, Libya (-47 meters/-154 feet), Chott Melrhir, Algeria (-40 m/-131 feet), and Shatt al Gharsah, Tunisia (-17 m/-56 feet).
8. Turpan Depression, China. This trough is the earth’s third lowest point reaching an elevation of 505 feet below sea level (-154 meters). Located in China’s western desert region south of Mongolia, the Turpan Depression is the country’s hottest and driest area. Formed by a fault, this depression is huge and expansive and is surrounded by some of the tallest mountains on earth, notably theTian Shan and Bogda Shan. The region has a storied history and ruins are found throughout the basin many attributed to the Silk Road route that ran through here two thousand years ago. A crossroads of cultures, some of the historic and archeological sites in the region include Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, the Gaochang Ruins, and the Astana-Karakhoja ancient tombs.
9. Lake Assal, Djibouti. Lake Assal is at the bottom of a crater lake which lies 509 feet (-155 meters) below sea level making it the second lowest point on earth after the Dead Sea rift zone. The larger region, known as the Afar Depression, extends into Ethiopia where the Danakil Depression has a low elevation of 410 feet below sea level (-125 meters). National Geographic described it as the “cruelest place on earth”. The area is at the northern reaches of Africa’s Great Rift Valley which is an elongated rift valley where two plates are splitting apart. Lake Assal is the lowest point of land in Africa and it is marked by extremely high temperatures, volcanic landscapes, and desert - typical of most the earth’s low points.
10. Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee, Israel, Jordan. The Dead Sea is the world’s lowest point of land at 1,388 feet below sea level (-423 meters) more than twice as deep as the remaining areas below sea level. Sitting between Israel and Jordan the Dead Sea is incredibly saline, at 33.7%, and mostly devoid of life. Connected by the Jordan River fifty miles to the north, the Sea of Galilee, also called Lake of Gennesaret, Kinneret, and Lake Tiberias, is the world’s lowest freshwater lake, at 702 feet below sea level (-214 meters) making it the second lowest point on the earth’s surface. While the Dead Sea is considered a hypersaline, endorheic body of water, the Sea of Galilee has both an inflow and outflow provided by the Jordan River. The two bodies of water can hardly be more of a contrast. Occupying the Jordan rift valley, the Dead Sea is a stark, forbidding landscape seemingly barren of life whereas the Sea of Galilee, true to its biblical roots, is life-giving, with leafy shores now occupied by dozens of resort hotels which sit adjacent to fertile groves of fruit orchards. The area’s historical significance requires no special explanation as both lakes are located at arguably the world’s crossroads of history and civilization.
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