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Holiday calendar: Rise and fall of the Dead Sea


A multispectral view from the ASTER imager on NASA's Terra satellite shows salt evaporation ponds in the southern Dead Sea as of 2006.

The Dead Sea is at ground zero for the biblical past — and perhaps for the Middle East's environmental future as well. For today's installment of the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, we present two satellite images that show how the salty inland sea has changed over the past five years.

The orbital snapshot above was taken by the ASTER multispectral imager aboard NASA's Terra satellite in 2006. The picture below is a mosaic from Google Earth, based on orbital imagery provided this spring from DigitalGlobe, GeoEye and the French space agency CNES.   

DigitalGlobe / GeoEye / CNES / Google

A mosaic of Google Earth satellite imagery from this spring shows the salt evaporation ponds in the southern Dead Sea.

For years, environmental experts have voiced concern about shrinkage in the Dead Sea, but the situation is actually more complex: The northern part of the Dead Sea, visible toward the top edge of each image, is indeed drying up — and there's a danger that the body of water could fade away someday, just as the Aral Sea is fading away in Central Asia. The status of the highly managed southern part of the Dead Sea, which is separated from the northern part, is quite different: It's actually flooding. That's creating a salty mess on the tourist beaches that surround the southern sea.

In these pictures, you can see the southern Dead Sea sectioned off into industrial salt evaporation pools. For years, water has been pumped from the northern to the southern sea to feed those pools. If you look closely, you can tell that the water level in the north has been falling, while the level in the south is a bit more stable.

´╗┐Now Middle East governments are debating what to do about the imbalance, and what to do about the prospect for future water shortages as well. One thing is certain: The rise and fall of the Dead Sea is nothing new. Scientists reported this week that the body of water nearly disappeared 120,000 years ago. The region's changing water levels may even explain the various biblical references to the Middle East as a famine-struck land or a land flowing with milk and honey.

Every day from now until Christmas, the Space Advent Calendar features pictures of Earth as seen from outer space. Check back on Friday for the next entry on the calendar, and check out these previous entries:

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