Despite sinkhole problem, Israel should make the Dead Sea beaches fully accessible to the public instead of deeming the area as an ecological disaster, a new study suggests

Nir Hasson Feb. 13, 2022

A sink hole by the Dead Sea.
A sink hole by the Dead Sea.Credit: Emil Salman

Despite the Dead Sea’s shrinking size, the tens of thousands of sinkholes that have opened around it and the resultant closure of most of its beaches in recent years, the salt can be made accessible to the public.

These are among the conclusions of a new study by the Geological Survey of Israel, a state agency that advises the government on all aspects of geoscience. It argues that instead of writing off the area as an ecological disaster, the state should try to derive maximum benefit from it despite its problems.

Even if the government adopts some plan to direct more water into the lake, it will continue to shrink over the next 20 years and the sinkhole problem will grow accordingly, the authors note. Nevertheless, they say, the beaches can be made fully accessible to the public.

“The area is wild and a great experience; people swoon after a day touring the Dead Sea,” says Nadav Lansky, one of the study’s 10 authors, who has a doctorate in physical volcanology but whose work has for years focused on the Dead Sea. “This is a tremendous resource – 100 kilometers of coastline, a huge area that’s currently defined as a disaster area.”

The researchers argue that despite the problems, there are still two stable places near the lake – Route 90 to the west, which runs through an area with no sinkholes, and the eastern shore, which was flooded until a few years ago and is also largely free of sinkholes. The problem is how to create safe passages from the road to the coast, since the area between them is rife with sinkholes and the ground is unstable.

But the authors argued that we now know enough about sinkholes to create such safe passages, using either light wooden bridges or well-marked trails. Today, geologists can draw fairly precise maps of the areas at risk of developing new sinkholes and also determine which areas within these risk zones are more or less dangerous.

Sinkholes that open suddenly are considered very dangerous, but ones that develop slowly generally are not. And thanks to high-resolution satellite photography and computer processing, geologists can usually predict the risk of a new sinkhole opening.

Moreover, trails and bridges can be built in ways that reduce the risk of them collapsing if a sinkhole does open, the study said.

The coast itself is safe, the authors said, and it contains priceless tourism attractions. There are countless unique geological formations that can be found nowhere else in the world, including mushroom-shaped salt formations, the sinkholes themselves and microcanyons (deep, narrow canyons created when fresh water seeps into the area’s salt deposits).

The study argued that develop hiking trails, swimming areas, entertainment spots and resorts could all be developed along this coast. It also offered detailed suggestions for 10 hiking trails along the coast, from the estuary where the Jordan River empties into the lake in the north to the alluvial fan of Nahal Tze’elim in the south.

The authors also recommended exploring the possibility of preparing two additional hiking areas, near the Nahal Arava estuary in the south and along the section of the Jordan River just north of the sea. But both areas would have to be demined in order to make them safe for hikers.

In recent weeks, the study has been presented to all of the public agencies that deal with the Dead Sea or are located near it. These include the Tamar and Megilot regional councils, the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company, the tourism and the environmental protection ministries, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Most of them responded positively and promised to promote its ideas.

The main challenge in making the Dead Sea accessible stems not from engineering issues, but from legal and insurance problems, the study said. First, the legal status of the land exposed by the shrinking water isn’t clear. Second, the authorities are worried about lawsuits should tourists fall into a sinkhole.

But the authors said both challenges could be dealt with by proper planning and posting warning signs that will transfer part of the liability to the tourists. They pointed out that other countries permit hiking around natural phenomena that are potentially even riskier than the Dead Sea sinkholes, like the geysers at Yellowstone National Park in the western United States; they simply take necessary safety precautions.

Jackie Ben Zaken of Kibbutz Mitzpeh Shalem has operated a popular cruise service on the Dead Sea for nine years. Two years ago he had to shut down when a sinkhole opened up on the road to the beach where he docked his boats, but nine months later he received permission from the relevant authorities to use a dirt road north of that beach.

His insurance premiums are very high, he says, and he has to check the road and the dock every morning for signs of sinkholes. But unless the government decides to close the area completely because of the risks, he said, “we have to live with this.”