The Golan Is Moving Closer to Israel, Geologists Say

'A fault line runs through Kiryat Shmona, and it's impossible to know when a quake will take place.'

It is difficult to know whether the Golan Heights will be Israeli or Syrian territory in the future. However, one thing scientists at the Geological Survey of Israel can tell us is that for the past million years, the Golan has been moving slowly toward Israel.

The northern city of Kiryat Shmona and the Golan Heights are just a few kilometers apart geographically. But from a geological perspective, they are worlds apart. The Golan is part of the Arabian geological plate, which also includes Jordan, Syria and the Arabian peninsula. Kiryat Shmona, however, is part of the Galilee, which is in turn part of the Sinai plate, connected to Africa. Some 20 million years ago, the two plates began to move opposite one another. This movement, which continues today, created the Syrian-African Rift, along which the Dead Sea and Lake Kinneret are located.

Geologists had said for years that the Arabian plate is slipping northward relative to Israel, and at the same time, it is separating from it and moving east. According to this theory, Amman and Jerusalem are moving apart at the rate of a few tenths of a millimeter a year. But new research, which was recently published in the scientific journal Tectonics, paints a different picture: According to satellite surveys, the Golan is actually moving toward the Galilee.

"What we've now found is that a million years ago changes began to take place in the plates north of the Kinneret," says Dr. Ram Weinberger of the Geological Survey of Israel. In the area of the Hula Valley, Kiryat Shmona and Metulla, Weinberger says, the plates are moving closer.

"Relative to Kiryat Shmona, Katzrin is moving northward, but also westward," Weinberger said, referring to the city in the central Golan Heights.

Weinberger says the evidence of this movement can be seen in rock formations "riding" on each other in the Metulla-Kiryat Shmona area. He notes that Shehumit Hill in Kiryat Shmona is a basalt formation created by the uplifting of rock 80 meters above its surroundings over the past million years. It could continue to rise, Weinberger says, among other things because of future earthquakes.

Kiryat Shmona, says Weinberger, is sitting on very soft material, beneath which is a layer of very hard basalt. "We know that such a structure is dangerous in the case of an earthquake. There have been earthquakes in the past in northern Israel and there's no reason to think there won't be one in the future. A fault line runs through Kiryat Shmona, and it's impossible to know when a quake will take place," he says.

Research at Tel Aviv University reveals another danger facing the northern city: large stone blocks from the Manara Ridge behind and above the city, which could detach and fall on it. According to Mor Kanari, who was involved in the Tel Aviv University study, "In British aerial photos from the 1940s, we found that blocks of stone now down below were at that time above."

Kanari recommends afforesting the slope above the city to hold back the rock, at least somewhat.

Unlike Weinberger, Tel Aviv University geologist Prof. Shmuel Marco says the greatest chance for a quake is in central Israel. "Many of the world's most destructive quakes were in places that were quiet for long periods beforehand," he says.

There have been fairly strong quakes in the north in recent centuries, Marco says, and therefore "the most dangerous area is between the Dead Sea and Lake Kinneret, which is also the most inhabited area, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Amman. "Earthquakes are apolitical. They'll strike Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians to the same extent," he says.