Lying in the Jordan River Valley at the edge of the Judean Desert, the Dead Sea is one of the world's most intriguing bodies of water. At 429 meters below sea level, it is the lowest point on Earth, not counting the oceans. It is also ringed by the world's lowest road, a highway running along its Israeli and West Bank shores.
The Dead Sea is definitely not an ocean, and in fact, the mineral content in its water is quite different from ocean water. However, it is not actually a sea, either! Technically, the Dead Sea is a hyper-saline lake - and with a depth of 304 meters, it is the deepest lake in the world. It is super-salty because water arrives at the lake via the Jordan River, but has no way to exit other than through evaporation. The water evaporates leaving the salt behind. Although the Dead Sea has a whopping 9.6 times higher amount of salt in than the oceans, it is not the world's saltiest hyper-saline lake; several lakes in Antarctica, one in Djibouti, and a lagoon in the Caspian Sea all have higher salt contents.
This lake is salty enough to prevent life from living there - hence its name 'The Dead Sea'. Despite its desolate reputation, very small amounts of bacteria and microbial fungi are present, and occasionally the Dead Sea blooms even more. As a result of rainy winters, the microscopic life in the Dead Sea has flourished in the past. During one rainy winter, for example, the sea turned an eerie red, due to the temporary population boom of red-pigmented bacteria. Since 1980; however, the Sea has been drier and these periodic colourful bursts of life have ceased.
While it isn't a nourishing habitat for life, the Dead Sea has helped humans to flourish. It was one of the first health spas in the world; and has been attracting hoards of human visitors for thousands of years. Its unique combination of minerals, high salt content and sought-after black mud have long been used to provide relief for various ailments. Some of its benefits can be packaged up and sold around the world. For others (for example: the low pollen and high bromide content of the air, high atmospheric pressure, and reduced UV rays), travellers need to visit the lake itself. Even for those without health problems, the Dead Sea still offers an incredibly unique experience; its density makes swimming more like floating!
The Dead Sea also has a long and dignified history beyond its use as a health spa. To some, it is a place of religious significance. The bible says that it served as a refuge for King David. The ancient Egyptians used it to produce a balm which was important in the process of mummification. The discovery of asphalt-coated statues from the Neolithic era also suggests that the use of this uniquely produced substance dates back even further. More recently it has been used as a source of potash for fertilizers - a process which is exacerbating problems it faces.
Many are fooled into thinking that the Dead Sea is dead, for some reason or another, because of its name. While this is not exactly true, what many don't know is that it is dying, in a sense. The water level in the Dead Sea is dropping over one meter per year, and it has dropped a remarkable 40 meters since the 1950s - largely due to the drop in incoming water from the Jordan River. In its wake, the shrinking Dead Sea has left moonscapes of cracked mud flats, around 3,000 sink-holes, and even an abandoned water park - all testaments to its slow and tragic demise.
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