sinkhole
A sinkhole at the Dead Sea. Photo by David Shankbone/Wikipedia
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As you drive along the main road paralleling the Dead Sea, along with signs telling you how far you are from your destination – Masada, the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, or Eilat - are huge warning signs that read: “Danger – Sinkholes.”

Sounds ominous.

And it is. The warning signs are not only of the highway variety – the existence of the sinkholes is the very ground itself warning us of changes in the area’s ecology.

The level of the Dead Sea is continually declining as less and less water feeds into it from the Jordan River and seasonal streams, because more and more water is being siphoned off from those sources for drinking and irrigation. But as the Dead Sea's water recedes – by a whopping one meter a year – fresh water flows from the mountains into the underground layer of salt once covered by the briny lake. The fresh water dissolves the salt, creating unstable underground cavities into which the surface sinks.

Several hundred sinkholes have begun to appear every year now, some as large as 12 meters in diameter and 20 meters deep. A date plantation in Ein Gedi and a recreation area on the beach are victims of the process, not to mention the threat to the road at various points.

It may not be very likely that one of these craters would suddenly yawn beneath your feet as you walk along the stony beach, but it’s certainly not impossible to fall into one that’s already there.

Because sinkholes develop gradually, a team of scientists from the Israel Geological Survey, Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University, together with Dr. Eli Raz of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, realized the benefit of being able at least to help predict when and where they would occur to reduce the danger and economic damage. Researchers say using radar waves broadcast by an Italian earth-observation satellite system known as Cosmo-Skymed helps them recognize changes in the earth’s surface and forecast when future sinkholes before they can be seen on the surface.

Mesha, King of Moab, makes a mistake

There were no sinkholes in the Bible (the treacherous “pits” mentioned Genesis 14:3 were naturally occurring bitumen pits). But as you drive along and spot today’s sinkholes along the shore, some filled with fresh water from winter flooding, you can recall a dramatic Bible story that happened not too far from here.

Mesha, king of Moab (across the Dead Sea) had unwisely decided to stand up to King Jehoram of Israel, and stop delivering his annual tribute of wool from 200,000 sheep and rams.

His gamble for a free trade zone almost paid off. Although Jehoram rallied a considerable force against him including his Judahite colleague Jehoshaphat and the king of Moab, they ran out of water and things looked grim. But along came the prophet Elisha who said: 'Thus saith the Lord: Make this valley full of trenches… Ye shall not see wind, neither shall ye see rain, yet that valley shall be filled with water; and ye shall drink, both ye and your cattle and your beasts.” Well, the valley has many “trenches” now. Be on the lookout!

(Video by NTDTV Youtube Channel.)