Dead May Not Be The Best Description!
Seas and stuff like that!
In common parlance, the term sea is used to describe the great mass of salt water which covers some three quarters of the surface of the planet that humans call home but the term is also applied to many of the world’s great lakes even though such bodies of water do not at any point connect to the world-encircling body of water commonly called the sea. This is especially so when the great lake in question is a salt lake in which case the term sea is almost always used as part of a proper name. Thus such great salt lakes as the Aral, Caspian and Dead Seas are so designated.
The Dead Sea, which occupies a northern extension of the great East African Rift Valley lies along the border between the Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Israel and it 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 some 396 meters (about 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 between 7 to 8 times the levels found in ordinary seawater.
Certain factors are considered to be responsible for the extremely salty nature of the waters of the Dead Sea. Unlike most of other great salt lakes that are fed by multiple rivers, which multiplicity tends to help to lower salt concentrations, the Dead Sea is entirely dependent on the waters that the River Jordan brings to the Sea. Flowing through some of the most saline portions of the Earth, the river brings in very high concentrations of varied salts to this great lake. Having no exits, the salts remain concentrated in the lake in increasingly higher proportions.
Then there is the fact that this lake loses more of its waters proportionally to evaporation than do other similar great salt lakes. Summer temperatures around the Dead Sea are amongst the highest in the world, frequently exceeding 40° Celsius or 104° Fahrenheit. Given that the Dead Sea lies in area of fairly limited rainfall, more water is lost to evaporation than can adequately be replenished by the inflows from the River Jordan and the limited rainfall. The result is that the salts that are brought into the lake by the River Jordan are further concentrated in increasingly smaller amounts of water, for the Dead Sea is, in fact, a shrinking Sea and it is estimated that perhaps up to a third of the volume of the Sea’s waters is made up of dissolved sodium chloride (common salt), potash, bromides and magnesium compounds.
It is this excessive concentration of salts, some 35 or so different salts, in the waters of the Sea 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, although 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, in fact, seem to positively thrive in them.
One such organism that has come to terms with the otherwise hostile environment that the Dead Sea offers to most living things is Halobacterium halobium. Employing the well-known process of photosynthesis, H. halobium is able to convert water and carbon dioxide (CO2) into the carbohydrates, such as glucose, that are essential for its survival. However, in carrying out the photosynthetic process, H. halobium does not employ the green pigment, chlorophyll, that green plants use and which has become so wedded in our minds with the process; rather, this bacterium uses a purple pigment to achieve the same ends that green plants achieve in more commonly life-sustaining environments.
Then there is the tiny algae-like Dunaliella, which may prove to be of extreme importance to humans in time to come, for this tiny Dead Sea inhabitant is able to process those so-deadly waters and give out petroleum-like hydrocarbons! With the increasing knowledge of bio-engineering, it certainly is not beyond the bounds of possibility that organisms such as H. halobium and Dunaliella, as well as others that are yet to be discovered in some of the more inhospitable environments that our world harbors, may yet be of value in utilizing Earth’s more than abundant resources in a manner that sustains Earth and, at the same time, sustains all of Earth’s children.
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.
Of course, we may have to wait a bit before Dunaliella, or any bio-engineered cousins, play any meaningful part in satisfying man’s seemingly insatiable need for hydrocarbons; even if the science were settled, it seems that the politics in the area where the Dead Sea is situated will keep any real benefits just beyond reach for some time to come. Having said, the Dead Sea already, even now, plays a very important role in that region in the area of extracting valuable minerals.
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.
Dwindling Lake Chad
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. It should be kept in mind of course, that those who enjoy a temporary benefit from any economic activity have a tendency to deny any possible ill-effects as a result of the activity engaged upon.
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.