The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea - also known as the Sea of Salt (the common Israeli name), the Valley of Sidim, the Ancient Sea, the Sea of the Arava and (in biblical times) the Eastern Sea, and located on Israel's border with Jordan - is a hypersaline lake whose surface and shores are 423 meters (1,388 ft) below sea level as of the beginning of 2009, the lowest place on the face of the Earth. It is 377 m (1,237 ft) deep, and with 33.7% salinity (8.6 times saltier than the ocean), it is also one of the world's saltiest bodies of water.

The Jordan River is the only major water source flowing into the Dead Sea, although there are small perennial springs under and around the sea. There are no outlet streams. The sea is called "dead" because its high salinity prevents macroscopic aquatic organisms, such as fish and aquatic plants, from living in it, though minuscule quantities of bacteria and microbial fungi are present.

The biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorra were most likely located on the southern shores of the Dead Sea. The area was a place of refuge for King David. In the 2nd Temple period, various sects of Jews settled in caves overlooking the Dead Sea. The best known of these are the Essenes of Qumran, whose extensive library known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947, is considered one of the most important archeological findings ever. King Herod the Great built several fortresses and palaces on the western bank of the Dead Sea. The most famous was Masada, where, in 70-73 CE, a small group of Jewish zealots held out against the might of the Roman legion and committed mass suicide at the end to avoid captivity.

The Dead Sea is a national and global natural treasure. It attracts many tourists, thanks to the therapeutic opportunities it offers, the natural beauty of the arid landscape and the sheer cliffs of the Jordan Rift Valley surrounding it, and the impressive must-visit archeological site of Masada overlooking it. The sea's salinity allows for a unique floating experience and the minerals found in the water and in the mud along the shore provide world-famous health benefits to bathing.

The economic importance of the Dead Sea is also tied to Dead Sea Works Ltd., an Israeli potash and other minerals producer. The company, in business since 1936, has turned the southern part of the Dead Sea into a huge farm of industrial evaporation ponds.

Unfortunately, the water level in the Dead Sea decreases at a rate of about 1.20 meters per year over the last 30 years. Receding water levels are due mainly to the divergence of water away from the Jordan River, with the Dead Sea Works operations playing a minor role as well. In many places the shore line today is hundreds of meters away from where it used to be 30 years ago.

The receding water level causes up to $90 million of damage each year, as well as the terrible harm caused to infrastructure, wildlife and vegetation, among them species that are unique to the area which are currently classified as endangered species. In particular, the receding water level has caused about 3,000 dangerous sink holes to appear so far in the vicinity of the sea's shores.

The possibility of flowing desalinized water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea is currently being examined. This project is a joint venture of the World Bank, the government of Israel and the government of Jordan. It is one of the largest projects of its type in the world and will be very costly and fraught with environmental and economic risks. By the time it is implemented, if it is implemented, the water level is expected to decrease by an additional 30 meters.

In the evaporation ponds in the south - the center of tourism to the Dead Sea area - the problem is the opposite. There, the water level is rising by 20 centimeters annually, due to the accumulation of salt on the ponds' bottom. The rising level puts the many hotels located there at a danger of flooding. The [expensive] solution is to move the hotels and/or to "harvest" the salt from the ponds' bottom, but finding a way to finance such solution(s) is a problem by itself that has no solution so far.

The Dead Sea stamp is a small step in raising public awareness in Israel and around the world to the plight of the Dead Sea. It was issued in 2009. Designer: Meir Eshel.