Scientists prod through test tubes of mud and salt to reveal secrets of half a million years.

For the Israeli Dead Sea researchers, the 40 days of drilling that began late last week is the culmination of 10 years of effort. It is also the raw material for at least 10 more years of scientific research and study.

The International Continental Scientific Drilling Program – Dead Sea (ICDP-DS) project has already begun pulling up its first series of cores. Drilling off the coast of Ein Gedi about eight kilometers out 300 meters deep, the plan is to dig half a kilometer down and bring up samples of the layers of sediment. Those samples will provide a year-by-year account of natural activity in the region over the last 500,000 years – earthquakes, rainfall, water level in the sea and so forth.

The cores are stored in plastic tubes where every centimeter represents about 100 years of climate history. It’s not a visually stunning sample – it just looks like mud and salt wedged inside tubes. Scientifically, though, it’s a gold mine of potential information.

There are teams from around the world on the drilling project helping to process the tubes so that they can access the information inside for their research.

The land-based research station is makeshift by hi-tech standards.

It consists of two air-conditioned rooms with a sort of portable CT scan to test the magnetic susceptibility of the tubes, which tells you very generally what kinds of rocks are in the tubes. The tubes are kept refrigerated and will be flown to the University of Bremen in Germany, which is the European repository for core samples.

While the lab may not look like much, it is the lap of luxury compared to some of the other places the researchers have gone on ICDP drilling projects, Dr. Nicolas Waldmann of the University of Bergen in Norway commented on Tuesday while showing reporters around. Waldmann is originally Israeli, and so jumped at the opportunity to come back and work on the Dead Sea project.

“For the project in Patagonia, Argentina, the researchers had to bring everything with them,” he said. Waldmann was not part of that project but was told about the site by his PhD supervisor, Dr. Daniel Arztegui, of the University of Geneva. Arztegui chimed in, “We were living in a makeshift city built out of about 40 caravans.”

So an air-conditioned room an hour from a major metropolis like Jerusalem and down the road from a hotel is pretty good. Some of the other drilling projects were in even more remote locations, like Siberia, Waldmann said.

Arztegui is here in Israel to study the life in the Dead Sea.

No, that’s not a typo. Despite being known as the Dead Sea for many years because it was believed the high salt concentration prevented any life, there are actually microbes and bacteria which thrive on the salt, Arztegui said.

“There are microbes living in the sediment. My research focuses on those kinds of extremifiers – microbes which survive in extreme environments. It’s a relatively new type of research based on new techniques, which hasn’t been done in lakes before. We will do DNA extractions to know what kind of microbes there are. In the best case scenario, we will be able to reproduce them in a culture in controlled experiments.

“We studied fresh water microbes in Patagonia, so I’m very happy to get the chance to study microbes from a hyper saline environment like the one here,” he told The Jerusalem Post.

Only the magnetic susceptibility scanning will be done on site.

The rest of the studies will take place for many years at universities all over the world.

“There are bubbles here,” Waldmann said as he pointed to a spot in one of the core sample tubes.

“There will be some researchers who will study the chemical reactions taking place inside those air bubbles.”

For a scientist, the level of detail at the microscopic level is tremendous.

To facilitate research, each core sample will be sliced in half. One half will remain untouched and in storage. The other half will be poked, prodded, dissected and tested to reveal the secrets of the last 500,000 years, Waldmann explained.

The drilling project is being undertaken under the aegis of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Project leader Prof. Zvi Ben-Avraham is a member of the Academy. He is also the head of the Minerva Dead Sea Center at Tel Aviv University.

“This is the largest project in earth sciences in Israel ever. It is also expensive by our standards at $2.5m. We petitioned 10 years ago to get the rig here,” he told the gathered reporters.

ICDP has one rig manned by US professionals that makes its way around the globe drilling, to enlighten mankind as to the history of the earth’s crust.

The project is being undertaken for the wealth of data it can provide about the natural history of the area and for the use that data can be put for predictive climate models, Dr. Moti Stein of the Geological Survey in the National Infrastructures Ministry declared.

“In the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of interest in climate change and global warming,” he said. “However, the natural data has to be entered into those models.

You need to find ‘libraries’ or ‘archives’ of such data and the Dead Sea is one of those.

“It is situated between two climate systems – the desert and the Mediterranean. Sometimes one was more dominant and sometimes the other.”

The data is locked into the layers of sediment that drained into the sea from Sinai to the Golan Heights. Because of the dual influence, the data might help predict what happens when a region gets wetter or dryer over a long period of time.

The researchers said they even have hopes that the data could give some indication as to the history of Homo sapiens.

In addition to rainfall and climate patterns, “In the last 15 to 20 years, it has become apparent that the lowest place on Earth is also the best for studying historical earthquakes,” said Professor Amotz Agnon of The Fredy & Nadine Herrmann Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“There is a seasonal sinking of layer upon layer of sediment.

Some layers are composed of a chalk-like rock, and others of salt.

When the rock mixes up with the salt, then we know there was an explosion of mechanical energy at that point, which probably means an earthquake. We can then compare the sediment record with the environmental and historical record to see if it matches. So far, research over the last 10 years shows that the sediment record matches the dates of earthquakes,” he said.

The layers of sediment can be dated to within a margin of error of a single year.

Armed with precise data about past earthquakes, it might be possible to predict future ones, Agnon added.

Concern over a shrinking Dead Sea has prompted advocacy and study programs, but this is not the lowest the Dead Sea has ever been. According to Stein, the sea naturally reached 500 meters below sea level and then recovered.

Right now, the sea is at 423 meters below sea level. At the turn of the previous century, the water level was at 390 meters below sea level.

One of the challenges now, according to University of Haifa’s Dr. Michael Lazar, who is the project manager, is to compare how the sea recovered naturally from such a steep drop in its water levels with the processes started and controlled by man.

So, for 40 days and 40 nights, the drilling will go on. Scientists will rotate shifts around the clock to supervise the drilling and Lazar probably won’t get much sleep.

But perhaps at the end, the raw material for a new Torah of the Dead Sea will have been collected.

Additional coverage: Drilling the Dead Sea to unmask the secrets of the past [Haaretz]