Scientists in Israel are drilling into the murky depths of the Dead Sea in hopes of unearthing scientific treasures hidden in 500,000 years worth of mud and sediment.
The unique setting of the Dead Sea — the lowest place on earth at 1,385 feet below sea level — should present researchers with distinctly stratified sedimentation that may answer scientific questions in fields ranging from geology to archaeology and could lead to new insight into climate change.
Researchers say the core that will be pulled out from 1,640 feet below the seabed could open the door to years of research as every stratum could inspire a new hypothesis.
"It's like reading a book," said Ulrich Harms, a German scientist who heads the International Continental Drilling Program, a major funder of the project. "It's a perfect archive of droughts and floods, of changing climate over a long time span."
The project is the brainchild of two Israeli scientists who believed that drilling deep into the crust under the Dead Sea could expose information that other research on its banks did not reveal.
About 10 years ago, Zvi Ben-Avraham and Mordechai Stein appealed to the Germany-based drilling program, which organizes scientific drilling around the world. The program's approval of the Israeli scientists' request came only this year, after it was delayed in part because of the Israeli-Palestinian fighting of the first half of the decade.
In a sign of how the relationship between the two sides has thawed since, Palestinians as well as Jordanian researchers are participating in the project. Dead Sea research is one of the few spheres that sees Palestinians and Israelis working together.
"They want to cooperate with us because they see this as an important project and science knows no boundaries," said Michael Lazar, a professor of marine geosciences at the University of Haifa and the project's manager.
The Dead Sea is unique not only for the partnerships it has created and its low altitude. Unlike most other lakes, only one river, the Jordan, runs through it and none pour out of it, meaning the sedimentary buildup over millions of years has largely remained intact.
That will allow scientists to take a look at the mud and sediment core that will be drilled out of the earth, date it and determine what type of climate dominated during what period. The mud is marked by lighter and darker layers, the former a remnant from a dry period, the latter from flooding. This historical record could present new insight on climate change.
"We will be able to know if 368,494 years ago was a rainy year or not, or if there was an earthquake," said Ben-Avraham, who has been researching the Dead Sea for more than 30 years.
Where the sediment layers don't line up, there was likely an earthquake. Beyond new knowledge this may provide seismologists, archaeologists studying biblical temblors will be able to match up their findings with the timeline presented by the broken lines of the Dead Sea core. Anthropologists researching the migrations of early man — many of whom are believed to have passed through the Dead Sea basin area — could find new information to support theories.
The project may also help scientists learn about the fluctuating levels of the Dead Sea. The lake has shrunk significantly in the last few decades, mostly because of increased water extraction from the Jordan River by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian sources.
The $2.5 million, 40-day project is being conducted by about 40 scientists and in cooperation with partners from six countries.
The drill, which travels around the world conducting scientific operations, can penetrate through 5,000 feet. The scientists are only gathering 1,640 feet worth because they expect to hit a layer of thick salt at that level that will slow down the process.
Workers will drill in two daily shifts of 12 hours, removing the core bit by bit in cylinders that are 10 feet long with a diameter of 5 inches. Another parallel hole will be drilled nearby to account for any layers that may have been accidentally detached from the first hole. These will then be shipped to the University of Bremen in Germany, where they will be refrigerated and prepared for study.
Before the drilling, the scientists, many of whom have devoted their careers to studying the Dead Sea, felt great anticipation at what lies beneath.
"You don't have any other place in the world with such a high-resolution record," said Lazar, anxious from initial technical hiccups. "This is the lowest place on earth and we're going lower."