Drilling rig - Daniel Bar-On - Nov. 16, 2010
The drilling rig on Nov. 16, 2010 on the Dead Sea shore near Ein Gedi. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Drilling is to begin Wednesday half a kilometer into the bed of the Dead Sea to study hundreds of thousands of years of geological history, in the largest-scale scientific drilling ever carried out in Israel.

The material to be extracted will form a column only a few centimeters thick - but 500 meters long. Through it, scientists will be able to document the climate in the region to a precision level of within a few years, and learn about the earthquakes that shaped the landscape during this time.

The sponsor of the project, the International Continental Drilling Program, is a consortium of several countries that conducts two scientific drillings a year, and finally chose the Dead Sea area after repeated requests over recent years. Locally, the project is being supported by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and the Tamar Regional Council.

The drilling, which is expected to cost approximately $2.5 million, is a regional project, implemented jointly with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, as well as with Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Japan and the United States.

The project is headed by Israel Prize laureate Prof. Zvi Ben-Avraham, head of the Minerva Dead Sea Research Center at Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Moti Stein of the Geological Institute in Jerusalem. Project manager is Dr. Michael Lazar of the University of Haifa.

Tuesday morning, aas final preparations were underway to tow the rig seven kilometers out to sea opposite Ein Gedi, Ben-Avraham said the sedimentary material to be extracted from the drilling "will allow us to know, for example, whether the year 266,324 years ago was a rainy one."

Scientists will also be able to identify phenomena like dust storms, floods, earthquakes and droughts, as well as amounts of rainfall. "Since the Dead Sea is so low, it has a huge drainage basin, bigger than all of Israel - from the Golan Heights to deep in Sinai. So all the rain that falls in the region influences it," Ben-Avraham said.

He added that the material would reveal what the climate was like for hundreds of thousands of years before human intervention, and if changes in the water level were due, for example, to solar cycles. "We'll be following four ice ages. It's incredible," Ben-Avraham said. "We might even find support for events mentioned in the Bible."

Lazar said that the dating of earthquakes could deepen understanding of the migration of homo sapiens, because when humans left Africa, the Dead Sea region was their route. "According to the theory, humans left Africa a number of times. If a correlation can be found between the last time they left Africa and climate changes or earthquakes, perhaps we can find intersting connections here," Lazar said.

On Tuesday, seven young Americans from Salt Lake City, Utah in hard hats , representatives of DOESCC (Drilling, Observation and Sampling of the Earth's Continental Crust ), a not-for-profit corporation handling the operational side of the project, were at the Dead Sea shoreline. They had brought the rig with them from Turkey, where their last project took place.

Operations manager Beau Marshall and his team have already spent months in minus 40 degree Celsius temperatures in Siberia, Lake Potrok Aike in Argentina and Lake Van in Turkey. Funding limits them to 40 days for the task: "We're working 12-hour shifts, twice a day, seven days a week, but I have no problem with that," Marshall said.

Under the rig's nine-meter-high crane, piles of iron piping are ready to descend through 300 meters of water to the Dead Sea bed, and then another 500 meters at least. Plastic sleeves will be inserted into the metal pipes, which will contain the extracted material.

The samples will be held for a short time at Ein Gedi and then be sent to a special laboratory at Bremen University in Germany. There they will be maintained at a temperature of 4 degrees Celsius, and examined by dozens of scientists from universities in Israel as well as Columbia in New York and the German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam.

"Scientists from China to California are interested in the research - people dealing with climate, chemistry and geo-chemistry, rock physics, the earth's magnetic field. It's a whole world," Ben-Avraham said.