Oded Balilty  /  AP
Only pools of water remain where the Dead Sea once reached in this June 2006 photo. Scientists in Israel drilled into the murky depths of the Dead Sea in hopes of unearthing scientific treasures found in 500,000 years worth of mud and sediment.
By
updated 12/8/2011 12:11:17 PM ET 2011-12-08T17:11:17

The Dead Sea nearly disappeared about 120,000 years ago, say researchers who drilled more than 1,500 feet below one of the deepest parts of the politically contentious body of water.

The discovery looms large at a time when the Dead Sea is shrinking rapidly, Middle Eastern nations are battling over water rights, and experts hotly debate whether the salt lake could ever dry up completely in the years to come.

New data from drilled deposits are also helping piece together geological history that slices through biblical times. Further research may offer opportunities to verify whether earthquakes destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah or if drought explains why Joseph brought Israelites to Egypt to escape famine.

"We see a lot of these different stories in the Bible about fat years and lean years," said Steven Goldstein, a geochemist at Columbia University in New York. "And we can see in the record that there were these intervals where it looks like it was a land of milk and honey, and there were intervals where there was no water, no rain and I'm sure, famine. Climate validates that there were these rhythms."

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. NOAA
      Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

NEWS: Resurrecting the Dead Sea

The new research started, not as an attempt to investigate biblical events, but to understand the history of the Dead Sea, which has been drying up at dramatic rates in recent decades. As a result of both evaporation and intensive human demands for water from inflowing rivers, the surface of the lake dropped 23 meters (75 feet) from 1930 to 2000, said Emi Ito, a geochemist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

And the lake's rate of shrinking seems to be accelerating. From 2000 to 2008, levels dropped 8 m (26 feet), with another 1.5 m (5 feet) lost in 2010 alone.

Even as the lake's salty shores recede, though, scientists have long debated whether it could ever totally dry up. Because the water is so salty and because salt and water molecules attract each other, many modeling studies have suggested that some amount of water will always remain there.

WATCH VIDEO: Why is Earth in the midst of its sixth mass extinction?

To see if history could help settle that debate and others, an international team of researchers drilled down about 460 m (more than 1,500 feet) into sediments of the Dead Sea in Israeli territory at a spot that was just slightly shallower than the lake's deepest point, which lay on the other side of the border in Jordan. The cores they pulled up stretched back 200,000 years.

At a level corresponding with 120,000 years ago, during a warm period between ice ages, the researchers found a layer of small round pebbles sitting on top of 45 meters (nearly 150 feet) of thick salt deposits. Those pebbles, they announced this week at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, look just like the rocks that normally appear on the lake's beaches — suggesting that one of the deepest parts of the lake was once dry.

"It seems as though the lake may have dried out or got very close to drying out without human intervention," Ito said. "We may have to revise our thinking that the Dead Sea cannot dry out."

That very dry period many millennia ago was much hotter than it is today, said Jiwchar Ganor, an environmental geochemist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. Humidity was lower. And there was less water flowing into the lake then there is today.

NEWS: Dead Sea Scrolls Made Locally, Tests Show

He doubts the lake actually dried up altogether then — or that it will disappear completely in the future, even as it keeps shrinking at an alarming rate.

"We can say that even without changing climate, it will continue to drop," Ganor said. "But it will still be at a higher level than what it was in the time they found here."

Still, there's no way to know how modern-day human interventions will interact with future climate change to affect the Dead Sea. And if the Dead Sea could become mostly dry once, the concern is that it could happen again, raising the likelihood for wars over water and the loss of still mostly unstudied life forms that manage to thrive in such saline waters.

Meanwhile, historians and biblical scholars are watching closely to see what the next stages of research will turn up in the sediments, which reveal details of past climate and earthquakes.

Book XV of the Antiquities of the Jews, for example, describes an earthquake that destroyed Judea and killed 30,000 people. And the Book of Joshua tells of a quake that tumbled the walls of Jericho and stopped the Jordan River from flowing, allowing the Israelites to pass through.

Perhaps the Dead Sea harbors answers to these ancient mysteries.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: Eight Jewish archaeological discoveries

  • Image: scroll fragment
    AP

    It's been decades since the first pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the caves of the Judean desert, but yet another piece of parchment bearing 2,000-year-old scriptures - verses from the Book of Leviticus - was found just recently. Such finds demonstrate that the Holy Land can still produce ancient treasures, thousands of years after the events described in the Bible.

    Click the "Next" label to learn about seven more archaeological discoveries in recent years that have shed light on Jewish history and the Old Testament.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Ceramic shard may bear oldest Hebrew inscription

    Image: Elah Fortress ruins
    Bernat Armangue  /  AP

    A 6-by-6-inch pottery shard unearthed at the archaeological dig site of Hirbet Qeiyafa (the Elah Fortress) in Israel, shown here, contains five lines of faded characters that may bear the oldest Hebrew inscription ever found. The 3,000-year-old text dates to the time of the Hebrew Bible's King David and is thought to be written in proto-Canaanite, a precursor to the Hebrew alphabet. While other people used proto-Canaanite characters as well, the inscription contains a three-letter verb meaning "to do" that existed only in Hebrew, according to Yossi Garfinkel, a Hebrew University archaeologist in charge of the dig. "That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found," he told the Associated Press. Other scholars, however, have urged caution until more is known about the inscription and its context.

  • Elusive biblical wall discovered?

    Image: pottery shards
    AP

    The Book of Nehemiah describes the construction of a wall as part of a rebuilding project after Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians. Archaeologists think they have now found the wall. Their case rests on the pottery pieces and other artifacts shown here. They were discovered near a wall that was previously thought to date to the Hasmonean period of Jewish history (142-37 B.C.). These pottery pieces date to the 5th century B.C., which suggests that the wall is older and corresponds with the time of the biblical account. Other archaeologists, however, are unconvinced.

  • Remains of 'miracle pool' found

    Image: water flows through remains of Siloam Pool site
    Kevin Frayer  /  AP

    In this image, water flows through a site where the remains of a pool serve as a link between Jewish rituals and a famous miracle said to have been performed by Jesus. The site, known as Siloam Pool, was used by Jews for ritual immersions before heading down to the Temple Mount. Jesus is said to have miraculously cured a man of blindness in the pool. Archaeologists have also found biblical-era coins with Jewish writing, pottery shards and a stone bottle cork — all helping confirm the authenticity of the site, located in what is now the Arab neighborhood of Silwan.

  • Dead Sea Scrolls shrouded in mystery

    Image: Dead Sea scrolls
    Tara Todras-whitehill  /  AP

    The ancient texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century, yet to this day they remain shrouded in mystery and controversy. The 2,000-year-old collection of writings, which includes the earliest surviving pieces of the Bible such as the Book of Isaiah, shown here, was discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd in a cave above the ancient settlement of Qumran. Conventional interpretations hold that the texts were authored and stored by the Essenes, a hard-core Jewish sect thought to have occupied Qumran at the time. However, in recent years this view has come under attack by scholars who believe Qumran was a fortress or pottery-making facility that had nothing to do with Essenes. These scholars contend that the cave was just a convenient storage locker of sorts for Jews fleeing the Roman siege on Jerusalem in the year 70.

  • Evidence of King Herod's tomb mounts

    Image: sarcophagus
    Bernat Armangue  /  AP

    Archaeologists excavating King Herod's winter palace in the Judean desert continue to unearth what appear to be the remains of the ancient ruler's tomb. The sarcophagus shown here was pieced together from scattered fragments of a mausoleum archaeologists believe was smashed apart by Jewish rebels who reviled the king as a Roman puppet. Herod was the Jewish proxy ruler of the Holy Land under Roman imperial occupation from 37 to 4 B.C. After his death, scholars believe the palace became a stronghold for rebels fighting the Roman occupation. The rebels were defeated, and the palace destroyed, in the year 71.

  • Tunnels, chambers aided escape from Romans

    Image: drainage channel
    Emilio Morenatti  /  AP

    When the Romans sacked Jerusalem around the year 70, Jews took refuge in a network of underground tunnels and chambers, archaeological finds have revealed. This image depicts one of the tunnels dug beneath the main road of Jerusalem during what is known as the Second Temple era. Pottery shards and coins from the end of the era attest to the channel's age, according to one of the project's researchers. Elsewhere in the city, archaeologists have uncovered chambers filled in with supplies, an indication that the ancient Jews prepared for the uprising.

  • Archaeologists question Masada saga

    Image: archaeological site in Masada
    Rachael Strecher  /  AP

    The mountaintop fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea is famous in Jewish history as the final holdout for about 900 rebels who chose suicide over capture by the Romans in A.D. 73. The story plays a central role in Israel's national mythology, though recent studies have cast doubt on its credibility. Some scholars think the mass suicide was greatly exaggerated or never happened at all. In the 1960s, archaeologists found two male skeletons and the braided hair of a woman in a bathhouse - and the Israeli government gave those remains a state burial in 1969, thinking that they came from Masada's Jews. More recently, however, some archaeologists have suggested that the remains were actually those of the Jews' Roman enemies. Despite the recent controversies, the Masada fortress, seen here, remains one of Israel's top attractions. A cable car carries visitors to the top of the rock.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments