DEAD SEA — If you thought you couldn't get any lower than the
Scientists here are drilling 1,640 feet beneath the bottom of the
Rock samples that have been underwater for millions of years are likely to be better preserved, they say, than samples taken from under an exposed surface, which can be damaged by aridity and erosion.
As a result, the
Since the region was mentioned in biblical contexts
that include Sodom and Gomorrah, the ruins of which some scholars
believe are submerged under the
It's a massive undertaking. A unique rig was constructed and then towed more than four miles into the salty sea, where drilling will go on for 40 days and nights, perhaps appropriate for the region.
Forty scientists from six countries are taking part in the deep-drilling program, sponsored by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the German-based International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, which conducts deep sea and lake drilling worldwide.
The samples are expected to provide a sort of
tree-ring-style annual log, stretching over a half-million-year period,
that will enable experts to say, for example, that "368,153 was a very
rainy year," says
At a nearby laboratory, the rings are clearly
visible through Plexiglas tubes containing the first samples. A pair of
layers, brown and white, represent a normal year with a wet season and
a dry one. Variations bear witness to drought, flood and trauma. "These
are the pages of our history," says
Experts say the
Filled tubes are kept in a freezer outside an unassuming lab in Kibbutz Ein Gedi, in the hills above the water. Early batches have been passed through a scanner that buzzes and beeps while sending data to a computer.
More tubes lie on the lab floor, soon to be put through the machine. In one, a 4-inch stretch of mud reflects a century-long wet period around 400 years ago, in what is known as the Little Ice Age. Deeper samples should corroborate other documented events such as the volcanic eruption of Santorini about 3,500 years ago.
The data in these "archives," as
The buoyancy draws tourists who come for a float. Others are attracted by the purported cosmetic and healing properties of the minerals, fabled since antiquity, or simply for the striking landscape.
But humans are playing a role. "We're not helping," says
Tectonic plates aren't the only things grating against each other. There's regional politics too.
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