What (and Where) Is the Dead Sea?

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As far as health resorts go, it doesn’t get much older than this: Visitors have been coming to the Dead Sea, located in the Jordan Rift Valley between Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan, for more than 2,000 years.

According to the Jordan Tourist Board, the reputed health-enhancing properties of the Dead Sea attracted people as far back as ancient times. Herod the Great, who was perhaps the greatest Biblical baddie of them all, built Masada Fortress nearby, and it is highly likely he would have taken a dip in the salty sea. Cleopatra also wanted in on the action. It’s alleged that she put pressure on Mark Antony to orchestrate a land grab so she could enjoy the effects of the restorative Dead Sea mud. The fascinating body of water has attracted humans for centuries, which leaves us wondering — what exactly is the Dead Sea and why is it so unbelievably salty?

Unlike Anywhere Else on Earth

The coastline of the Dead Sea
Credit: NickolayV/ Shutterstock

The Dead Sea occupies the lowest place on Earth, located at an impressive 1,360 feet below sea level. To put that into perspective, North America’s lowest spot in Death Valley, California, is just 282 feet below sea level. The Dead Sea occupies what scientists call a graben, a chunk of land on a plate boundary or fault line that has sunk as a result of tectonic activity.

Millions of years ago, the area would have been part of the Mediterranean Sea, but as the Arabian Plate collided with the Eurasian Plate, the land in between gave way. This upheaval created the nearby highlands and caused the surrounding land to sink. The water that comprised this part of the Mediterranean Sea had nowhere to go, and thus the Dead Sea was born.

Today, there are actually two Dead Seas. Since the water level has fallen in recent years, the peninsula of Al-Lisān has gradually extended eastward, separating the body of water into two distinct areas. The natural, northern part is what’s commonly referred to as the Dead Sea. To the south, the water level is artificially controlled, which enables factories to harvest minerals such as potassium, bromine, and magnesium from the water.

Why It's Super Salty

The Dead Sea with rock formations in the distance
Credit: Fadi Sultaneh/ Shutterstock

Despite its name, the Dead Sea isn’t a sea at all; it’s a salt lake! Around 2.5 million years ago, river water entering the lake transferred shale, sandstone, clay, gypsum, and rock salt. When moving water meets a stationary body, it slows and deposits what it is carrying. In the case of the Dead Sea, all that material entering the lake had nowhere to go and gradually built up. Thanks to the warm temperatures and low precipitation in the desert region, the water in the Dead Sea evaporated faster than it could be topped up, causing the water level to fall.

Eventually, the Dead Sea achieved equilibrium thanks to the water supplied by the River Jordan, its main tributary. The consequence of these processes, however, was a body of water that was far more saline than the original sea. It’s estimated that the salt content of the Dead Sea is somewhere in the region of 34%, which makes it nearly 10 times saltier than the ocean!

Why You Float

Person floating in the water with mountains in the background
Credit: Hrecheniuk Oleksii/ Shutterstock

A higher salt content changes the density of the water. When you jump into a body of water, you displace the liquid to make room for yourself. Since water has a higher density than the human body, the water pushes you up and you float. In the case of a saline lake such as the Dead Sea, the water is even denser than usual — making it even easier to float.

If you think that the Dead Sea sounds like a good place to relax, though, be cautious. It’s easy to have too much of a good thing. Immersing yourself in water with such a high salt content is fine for a short while but can be dangerous over a longer period of time. Scientists warn that prolonged immersion in such salty water can cause dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and other health problems. For that reason, Dead Sea resorts recommend you take a dip for just 10 minutes before you get out and towel off.

Things You Probably Didn’t Know

Peoples hands covered in mud
Credit: karen1974/ Unsplash

The salt water and mineral-rich mud are believed to have health-enhancing properties and to aid skin problems such as psoriasis, acne, and eczema, as well as rheumatologic conditions such as arthritis. (It’s also just a lot of fun to slather that soothing mud all over your face and body.)

However, it’s not a good idea to shave prior to taking a dip in the Dead Sea or to enter the water with any cut or graze, for that matter. The salt will sting. Similarly, make sure you don’t splash around or dunk your head underwater, since you don’t want to get salt in your eyes.

Any jewelry you wear that isn’t 24-karat gold will tarnish on contact with the water. Wear a silver ring and it will soon blacken. You might be able to clean it later, but it’s still better to leave your valuables in your hotel room before wading in.

The Dead Sea is not the saltiest body of water on the planet. That honor goes to the Don Juan Pond in Antarctica, which is 44% saline. However, this poses no threat to the Dead Sea tourism industry. Not only is the pond much smaller, but the weather in Antarctica is far less conducive to open-air bathing.

Spa hotels stretch along the shores of this salt lake, and big-name brands like Kempinski, Mövenpick, and Hilton are represented on the Jordanian side of the border. Many resorts offer day passes for the casual visitor. On the Israeli side, the Dead Sea resort of Kalia Beach claims to have the lowest beach bar in the world.

Thanks to the high salt content, plants and animals can’t survive in the Dead Sea, but it’s not completely dead. Halotolerant microorganisms are able to cope with this harsh environment and adapt to changing conditions if the salt content fluctuates.

Featured image credit: vvvita/ Shutterstock

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