(BBC) The Dead Sea, the salty lake located at the lowest point on Earth, is gradually shrinking under the heat of the Middle Eastern sun. For those who live on its shores it’s a slow-motion crisis – but finding extra water to sustain the sea will be a huge challenge.
If there’s one thing everyone knows about the Dead Sea it is that you can’t sink in it.
It is eight or nine times saltier than the oceans of the world – so dense and mineral rich that it doesn’t even feel like normal water, more like olive oil mixed with sand.
For decades no holiday in the Holy Land or Jordan has been complete without a photograph of the bather sitting bolt upright on the surface, usually reading a newspaper to emphasise the extraordinary properties of the water.
But the Dead Sea is also a unique ecosystem and a sensitive barometer of the state of the environment in a part of the world where an arid climate and the need to irrigate farms combine to create a permanent shortage of water.
You may have read that the Dead Sea is dying. You can see why the idea appeals to headline writers but it isn’t quite true.
As the level drops, the density and saltiness are rising and will eventually reach a point where the rate of evaporation will reach a kind of equilibrium. So it might get a lot smaller, but it won’t disappear entirely.
It is however shrinking at an alarming rate – the surface level is dropping more than a metre (3ft) a year.
When you consider that the surface of the Dead Sea is the lowest point on the planet – currently 420m (1,380ft) below sea level – that means that the planet’s lowest point is being recalibrated on an annual basis.
It is deep enough that journeying along the road that winds down to the shore causes your ears to pop as they do on an aircraft coming in to land.
The landscapes of the Dead Sea have an extraordinary, almost lunar quality to them – imagine the Grand Canyon with Lake Como nestling in its depths. And the people of the ancient world understood that there was something unique in the place, even if they couldn’t be quite sure what it was.
The story goes that Cleopatra used products from the area as part of her beauty regime, which as everyone knows also allegedly included asses’ milk and almond extract – although in truth tales like that are ten-a-penny around the Middle East.
And it’s possible that King Herod, who had a winter palace nearby, came here for his health too – although his tarnished historical reputation does tend to devalue his worth as a celebrity endorser in the classical world.
What is certain is that when the Romans occupied the Middle East they exerted rigid military control over the roads around the Dead Sea because it was such a fertile source of salt – a commodity so valuable then that it was used as a form of currency.
And the health benefits appear to be real enough. The intense barometric pressure so far below sea level may produce atmospheric conditions beneficial for asthmatics – I am a sufferer and I noticed a degree of difference.
And people with the painful skin disease psoriasis also seem to find relief in the combination of mineral-rich water, soothing mud and intense sunlight. In some countries, health agencies and charities pay for people with the condition to come on therapeutic trips.
So even though the Dead Sea is shrinking and changing, it still has an economic value. Tourists can choose to visit resorts in either Jordan or Israel and both countries also export cosmetic products manufactured in the area.
Part of the shoreline is in the Palestinian West Bank under Israeli occupation so it’s possible that in future Palestinians too will reap the economic benefits of the sea’s unique properties.
But there’s no doubt that the decline in the water level has been spectacular.
During the World War One, British engineers scratched initials on a rock to mark the level of the water. A century on, those scratch-marks are high on a bone-dry rock.
To reach the current water level you must climb down the rocks, cross a busy main road, make your way through a thicket of marshy plants and trek across a yawning mud flat. It’s about 2km (1.25 miles) in all.
A few kilometres along the coastline, in the tourist resort of Ein Gedi, the retreating of the water has created a huge problem.
When the main building, with its restaurant, shower block and souvenir shop, was built towards the end of the 1980s, the waves lapped up against the walls.
Now the resort has had to buy a special train in which tourists are towed down to the water’s edge by a tractor (another 2km journey).
For Nir Vanger, who runs the business side of Ein Gedi’s tourist operations, it’s an unnerving rate of change.
“The sea was right here when I was 18 years old, so it’s not like we’re talking about 500 or a 1000 years ago,” he says. “The Dead Sea was here and now it’s 2km away, and with the tractor and the gasoline and the staff it costs us $500,000 a year to chase the sea.
“I grew up here on the Dead Sea – all my life is here, and unfortunately in the last few years that’s a bit of a sad life because you see your home landscape going and disappearing, and you know that what you leave for your children and grandchildren won’t be what you grew up with.
“When we built a new house my wife asked me if I wanted a view of the sea and I said we should build it with a view of the mountains because they stay where they are and the sea keeps moving.”
So it’s not hard to understand the mystique of the Dead Sea, with its unique chemistry, harsh micro-climate and soaring camel-coloured mountains – a landscape that would still be recognisable to Herod and Cleopatra, give or take the odd multi-storey concrete hotel.
But to a geologist it is simply the terminal lake of the River Jordan – its end point. The river flows in at one end but the water doesn’t flow out again at the other – it just sits there and evaporates.
And while it is an exaggeration to say that the Dead Sea is dying, that would be a reasonable description of the river that feeds it.
It’s true that in the brief rainy season there are flash floods that bring water coursing through the wadis, or stony inlets. But these are parched for most of the year, and the river itself barely more than a trickle.
There are places in Israel and in the occupied West Bank where, in the dry season, you can almost step over it.
The Jordan was once one of the great waterways of the ancient world – Christ was baptised in it – and even in relatively modern times it was a surging river prone to flooding in rainy winters.