by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer
The turquoise blue waters of the Dead Sea shimmer in the sunshine like an exotic jewel set between the Judean Hills of Israel and the Moab Mountains of Jordan. For millennia, this natural wonder has cast its allure over people who have come to seek the healing properties of its mineral-laden waters and nutrient-rich black mud. Herod the Great is said to have used the Dead Sea as his personal spa; and legend has it that the Queen of Sheba received a gift of Dead Sea salts from King Solomon. During the Roman rule of Judea, Mark Anthony gave Cleopatra the rights to the Dead Sea region for her own cosmetic and medicinal factories so she could preserve her legendary beauty.
Devoid of Life
The Dead Sea supports an ecosystem that is rich in diverse plants and animals such as ibex and leopards, and 300 species of birds. Despite that—and its renowned therapeutic properties—the Dead Sea itself, as its name suggests, sustains no life—no fish and no vegetation. Nothing can live here because of the water, at 33% salinity, is 10 times that of the world’s oceans. Pillars of crystallized salt protrude from the shallow waters along the shore and testify to its extremely high salt content.
Life in the Depths
Yet, scientists still believed that there was life lurking in its depths. Strange concentric ripples on the surface suggested that something was happening below the surface. Exploration of the Dead Sea was almost impossible until recently when hi-tech scuba gear was developed to handle the extreme conditions. Even a small amount of seepage in a diver’s mask could prove fatal; a diver who accidentally ingested the salty water could suffer asphyxiation.
With diving technology up to speed, scientists from Ben-Gurion University braved the depths in 2011 and discovered something amazing. Almost 1,000 feet (304 m) below the surface on the Dead Sea floor, about 30 deep craters were found, some as much as 50 feet (15 m) wide and 65 feet (20 m) deep. Bubbling up from the craters were jets of fresh water from underground springs. And around these jets were what scientists describe as “biofilms,” mats of bacteria carpeting the surrounding rocks and nourished by the jet streams. Green mats coated the tops of the rocks and white mats covered the bottoms, each type of bacteria adapting to the fluctuating environment of fresh water and hypersalinity. Bacteria that could survive in both fresh water and salt water had never been found before.
SOURCE: Bridges for Peace