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August 20, 2014 | 24th Av 5774

Salt

Galilee Diary #332, April 8, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

When the people set out from their encampment to cross the Jordan, the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant were at the head of the people. Now the Jordan keeps flowing over its entire bed throughout the harvest season. But as soon as the bearers of the Ark reached the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the Ark dipped into the water at its edge, the waters coming down from upstream piled up in a single heap a great way off… and those flowing away downstream to the Sea of the Aravah, the Dead Sea, ran out completely…

-Joshua 3:14-16

On a spring weekend at the kibbutz Ein Gedi guest house, we took a beautiful hike up a desert canyon on Friday; on Saturday, we needed something walking distance from the hotel, and decided to hike to the "spa" operated by the guest house – about three miles down the coast. We could, of course, have walked along the shoulder of the highway, but that seemed unappealing, so we planned to cross the road and continue east, down to the edge of the water, and walk along the shore. There were some clouds, and it was early enough in the spring that the air was warm, but not hot. No sooner had we crossed the highway when we encountered a sign we had not noticed before: "No Passage: land mines." This was discouraging, and stimulated some debate in the group (of middle aged, middle class friends – not a thrill-seeking teenager among us). For a while we stuck to the highway, but then we noticed that the entire area behind that one sign (and there were no more) was crisscrossed with freshly traveled dirt roads, evidence of earthworks, piles of construction waste, etc. Finally, we came to the conclusion that any mines left from 1967 must have been washed or bulldozed away, and we cut down a path toward a dirt road closer to the water, parallel to the highway.

Now we encountered a series of signs with a new warning: "Danger: Sinkholes." To be honest, these were what we had come to see, so we were not daunted by the warning. The Dead Sea has been receding in recent years: as the water level drops, the area of the sea shrinks, exposing great expanses of what was previously the sea bottom. The reason for this shrinkage is that the only source of water feeding the Dead Sea is the Jordan River, flowing from the Kinneret. As Israel and Jordan draw off almost all of the flow of the Jordan for various needs, the amount reaching the Dead Sea on an ongoing basis is reduced to a trickle, insufficient to replace water lost to evaporation (the Dead Sea is a dead end – it has no outflow: water flows in the north end, and leaves by evaporation). As the shrinkage has accelerated in the past ten years or so, it seems that as the highly saturated salt water level drops, and underground fresh water from winter floods moves into the coastal strip, the equilibrium shifts, and the fresh water dissolves salts under the land surface, creating hollow spaces which occasionally collapse, creating a crater the size of a small house. There are places where these sinkholes have opened up under the highway along the shore, forcing the road to be rerouted. Apparently the phenomenon is likely to continue, leading to all sorts of unpleasant surprises for tourists and locals (e.g., hotel owners) alike. We hiked among these pits, and over weird badlands of sand and salt, for half a mile or so, to the "beach" – which consists of crunchy pea-sized pellets of pure white salt (actually salts – sodium chloride and a number of other minerals), garnished with salt-encrusted driftwood and junk (no seashells!). As we continued this strange beachcombing until we came to areas of quicksand-like mud that forced us back up to the dirt road, we found brave plants colonizing the salty former sea bottom, and strangely light rocks that turned out to be chunks of pure tar from undersea tar springs.

After we drained the Hula valley swamp in the north, in the 1950s, we discovered that tampering with nature's equilibrium can be risky, and in recent years we have reflooded parts of the valley to restore the stabilizing and buffering effect that Lake Hula had provided. The Hula, once a pestilential swamp, has even become a tourist destination. I wonder if my grandchildren will only know the Dead Sea from books and old vacation photo albums.

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