Moshe Gilad. Dec 24, 2023

On the way to the Dead Sea coastline are 6,000 to 8,000 sinkholes, with about 400 added each year. Israeli geologists suggest routes that would make the area accessible and safe, but it’s hard to say how many years it will take to stop the Dead Sea from sinking

The meaning of the phrase “ground falling out from beneath our feet” is that the foundation of our existence has been shaken. The foundation on which our lives are based is lost. On the coast of the Dead Sea, opposite the kibbutz of Ein Gedi, there’s no need for metaphors. The ground is literally falling out from beneath our feet, and unexpectedly, the sight is simultaneously awesome and heartbreaking.

We’re witnessing an ecological disaster, but it is a spectacular one. Tremendous forces of nature are flexing their muscles before our eyes. We tend to ignore them and look the other way, waiting for a magic solution. Sometimes, it’s a nightmare. At other moments, when a ray of sun peers from the clouds, it’s a glorious sight that can’t be compared to any other place in the world.

Sinkholes at Mineral Beach, with the abandoned hot springs facility at left.
Sinkholes at Mineral Beach, with the abandoned hot springs facility at left.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In recent years, three bathing beaches have closed along the Dead Sea. These are the Ein Gedi Hot Springs, the Ein Gedi Beach (opposite the kibbutz in the Tamar Regional Council), and Mineral Beach next to Mitzpeh Shalem (in the Megillot Regional Council, part of the West Bank).

Kalia Beach, at the northern end, is still there, along with two adjacent beaches. During a drive south of Kalia, we see the cars of hikers who have gone down to the beach, mostly near the military checkpoint next to Nahal Dragot. Most of the hikers park dangerously and descend to the beach while crossing strips of sinkhole activity. They ignore the warning signs, the terrain conditions, and the risks.

Sinkholes at Mineral Beach seen on the right, moving toward the shore.
Sinkholes at Mineral Beach seen on the right, moving toward the shore.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum 

The only regulated bathing beaches are in the hotel district, 60 kilometers away – but they’re essentially artificial pools and not the actual lake. There are 16 public beaches that have been formalized in the hotel district. They’re pretty – but not real.

We drove from Kalia to the Ein Gedi hot springs this week. We made only two stops along the way – opposite Mineral Beach and a beach located about four kilometers (2.5 miles) south of Ein Gedi. The lower we descended from sea level, the more the nostalgia grew. The smell of sulfur still assails your nose, but the bathing areas in the hot springs at both sites are no longer in operation.

Both look ruined. Abandoned. Pitiful. They have the appearance of collapse caused by a natural disaster and coerced neglect. “Everything comes to an end,” someone wrote on a pink wall in one of the ruined halls of the Ein Gedi hot springs.

According to a report on access to Dead Sea beaches (which was published in 2021 by Prof. Nadav Lensky with several co-authors from the Geological Survey of Israel and the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem), the Dead Sea is the only place in the world where thick layers of salt accumulate from within a deep body of water. It’s the only active environment that can teach us about the creation of the thick salt residues that became strata in widespread areas over Earth’s geological history.

עין גדי
Ein Gedi Beach, the only natural one remaining in the area.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The level of the Dead Sea has been falling by about one meter (3.3 feet) annually in recent decades, the result of a drastic decline in the amount of water that enters the lake from the Jordan River and deliberate evaporation for the purpose of producing potash by in the southern basin of the sea. We’ve been going on about restoring the Dead Sea to its previous level for decades, but it isn’t about to happen – certainly not within the next 20 years. We have to face this reality and consider what can be done with a rapidly shrinking sea and long rows of sinkholes.

Not within 20 years

The drop in the water’s level caused the coast to recede. An annual decline of one meter in the sea level sometimes means the annual receding of dozens of meters of coastline. Thanks to this and the appearance of sinkholes, both tourism and agricultural areas between Mineral Beach and Ein Gedi have been abandoned. Most of the area stretching between east of Highway 90 and the coastline – about 50 kilometers long and 6 kilometers wide – is now defined as dangerous.

The sinkholes are created as a reaction to the dissolving of a subterranean salt layer by groundwater. In other words, the drop in the level of the Dead Sea is causing the flow of potable groundwater. This water dissolves the subterranean salt level. This causes a vacuum, and the upper layer collapses. The ground falls out from beneath our feet.

עין גדי
The old, abandoned hot springs facility in Ein Gedi.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

According to estimates, there are between 6,000 and 8,000 sinkholesin the Dead Sea area. They are multiplying at a rate of about 400 a year. The areas most likely to experience these are the estuaries of streams that flow from the nearby mountain range to the water, carrying fresh water. The area at the greatest risk stretches from east of Highway 90 on the western edge of the sea to the coastline. The experts say that there isn’t any serious danger on and near the waterline itself.

Getting there is a challenge. Sinkholes that are developing along the shores of the lake are creating a wild landscape, which, in the opinion of the geologists who wrote the report on access to the beaches, could become a global tourism magnet. Sinkhole tourism, a phrase that once sounded like a joke, is now warmly recommended by serious and reliable scientists. This week, there were no foreign tourists at all along the Dead Sea. There were also very few Israeli visitors. These aren’t ordinary times, but we can and should prepare now for “the day after” the war.

The working assumption of the geologists headed by Lensky is that in any reasonable scenario, even if the decision is made to channel salt water into the Dead Sea, the decline in the sea level will continue for at least the coming decades. “In our opinion, we should and can make the Dead Sea beaches and the phenomena being revealed in them accessible while creating a balance between the danger presented by the sinkholes on the one hand and the tourism and educational opportunities they represent on the other,” wrote the geologists. “The approach at the basis of our proposal turns the pessimistic paradigm, which treats the Dead Sea as a nuisance and defines it as a disaster area, into an optimistic work plan that sees it as a resource.” Filled with this optimism of Lensky and his partners, we drove to Ein Gedi.

עין גדי
The abandoned pool in Ein Gedi.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Once, there were hot springs

The hot springs are located about four kilometers south of Ein Gedi. In the good old days, they had sulfur pools (whose waters were drawn from a depth of 30 meters below the Dead Sea), swimming pools, mineral mud baths, and a restaurant. It was humming with activity back then, providing spa treatments with various massages. The nearby coast receded quickly.

Eventually, guests would be driven to the waterline on a small “train.” Today, the distance from the former public baths to the beach is about two kilometers. About half of that runs along a narrow, unpaved road, the other half along a paved dirt road. The geological survey sinkhole map shows that there’s an area of sinkholes south of the road that descends from the baths to the lake and further north. The area between the baths and the kibbutz is marked as dangerous.

The Ein Gedi hot springs operated until the COVID pandemic. They finally closed their doors in June 2021 and never reopened. The gas station further north had already been already closed because of sinkholes in January 2015. The hot springs operated as a partnership between the kibbutz and the Yuval Yarin Dead Sea company. This week, the site looked like a bomb or tornado had hit it. The building, constructed in the 1980s with great ambitions and massive construction, looked destroyed.

Part of it has been dismantled by burglars who stole everything that seemed to be of value. Ceramic tiles have been removed from the walls, pipes and cables pulled out, the air conditioning system removed, and the elevator destroyed. The trees, mainly palm trees that had grown around the building, have dried up. The scene is like a crash you can’t look away from.

עין גדי
A sign at Ein Gedi Beach pointing to ‘the lowest place on earth,’ which has meanwhile gotten lower.Credit: תומר אפלבאום Tomer Appelbaum

The hot springs’ financial problems began even earlier. Back in 2018, the Yuval Yarin company filed a petition against the state at the High Court of Justice, saying that it should receive higher compensation for the damage caused by the sinkholes than what the government determined. The company argued that the sinkholes caused “highly significant damage” to the Ein Gedi hot springs complex. While the government wanted to compensate the complex to the tune of 10 million shekels ($2.7 million in 2018), the company said the damage suffered by the complex due to the sinkholes was double that.

We drove carefully among the skeletons of the sheds that remained alongside the building up to the coastline. After about a kilometer, we saw a wooden pier on our left that the Tourism Ministry built in 2005. The sea was close by back then. At the end of the pier, which is about 150 meters long, there’s a blue sign with the following written in huge letters: “The Lowest Place in the World – minus 416 meters.” The present level of the Dead Sea (according to the government database) is minus 438 meters and 49 centimeters. The sea level has fallen by 22 meters in 18 years.

The coastline is lovely. White salt crystals create large surfaces with unique pointed shapes. The water was a shade of turquoise that day, and it licked the salt on the beach with tiny waves. We sat on folding chairs. A light rain started to fall, and a colorful rainbow appeared for a moment on the hills across from us.

A sinkhole filled with turquoise water, near the Dead Sea.
A sinkhole filled with turquoise water, near the Dead Sea.Credit: Avi Rozen /

Shahaf Homri, the director of Ein Gedi’s business sector, said the closing of the Ein Gedi hot springs was his most difficult task in business. He says that in the years preceding the closing, there was a sharp decline in revenues from the hot springs. The reasons were the receding of the Dead Sea, the appearance of the sinkholes, and the flourishing of the hotel complex in the Ein Bokek region.

“The tourists preferred to travel to the southern hotels,” Homri says. “Although they’re on the bank of an artificial pool, the beaches there are well kept. Our beaches are the only ones along the Dead Sea that have remained natural, but they’re moving away from us every year. The costs of the ‘race’ to the coastline were crazy. From the moment we lost the sea, Ein Gedi lost part of its identity. The sea won’t return, and we have to forget the idea of ‘we’ll wait for the sea to return’ or ‘we’ll wait for the Mediterranean-Dead Sea Canal.’ That won’t happen. The more we can adapt ourselves to the situation, the better it will be for us.

“The physical deterioration of the hot springs building is enormous,” he says. “The complex was built in the 1980s, using a concept not suitable for the time and place we are in. We built a type of Baden-Baden baths here. Our entire concept of a spa has changed. Today, we know we would need a huge investment to rehabilitate the site. In addition, relations with our partner have gone awry, and therefore, there are also bureaucratic problems with the government.”

עין גדי
Abandoned beach umbrellas at Ein Gedi Beach.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A missed opportunity

Prof. Lensky says that in the case of the hot springs’ closure, several marketing and economic considerations were combined with problems like the sinkholes. The closure disappointed him, he says, because it was hasty, and the managers of the site gave up too easily, in his opinion. “It’s a big missed opportunity,” he said this week.

“Making these beaches accessible requires a solution to bureaucratic and safety problems, but these are technical and solvable issues. We’re living with a terrible lost opportunity here. The beaches offer a wonderful opportunity in terms of hikes, experiences, and education at a time when undeveloped areas are being closed off. … In terms of safety, the Geographical Survey has a possibility of providing support on the issue of deterrence.”

“If there’s an area that begins to sink – and that’s a preliminary sign of the creation of a sinkhole – we can say that there, the road should be moved to a calmer place, he says. “Areas that were active and have become inactive – we can reroute a path to them. We can direct the visitors in a relatively safe way. It’s a safety zone that isn’t hermetic, but it’s good, and it’s supported by technology.”

What’s worth seeing there?

“The entire area is amazing, but the waterline is the most interesting, in my opinion, and the safest for hiking. In second place are the sinkholes. Accessing them must be very cautious. If you approach from the coastline, the safety situation is good. If you approach from above, from the road, there’s a greater risk.

People walk next to a sinkhole by the Dead Sea.
People walk next to a sinkhole by the Dead Sea.Credit: Emil Salman

“We have to mark a path, and we should build a deck or a wooden bridge. I don’t believe that we have to fight nature aggressively here and to build with concrete. We have to work delicately. We can anticipate where the more dangerous areas are. We’re examining whether the ground is undergoing changes. That can even be done from satellites. Once every two weeks, you get an updated picture. There are areas that, half a year in advance, we know that they’re about to sink. If we install sensors in addition, we’ll know precisely the situation of the activity at the site itself.”

Where are the more dangerous areas?

“The area opposite Ein Gedi and around Mineral Beach is dangerous. They’re in a high place topographically. The layer of salt under them is dissolving, and between it and the surface, there are about 20 meters that have collapsed in many places. The area there is composed more of pebbles than mud. It’s a layer that’s falling ‘anxiously.’ That’s somewhere where there’s no point in approaching, and we should retreat.

“The Mineral Beach complex now looks like Chernobyl, but there are stable areas around it, and it’s possible to hike there. Our attitude in the geological survey is to find the active areas that aren’t worth dealing with and to stay away from them. That leaves lots of quiet and stable areas that are worth visiting. You’ll find sinkholes there, too. Just don’t approach the more dangerous ones.”

In the report published by members of the Geological Survey, there are suggestions for making beaches on all sides of the lake accessible. The suggestions include 12 routes creating a network of coastal paths, which they recommend connecting to sea routes and the network of marked hiking paths in the Judean Desert. They stress that this isn’t a recommendation to go out and hike there right away, just as this article isn’t a recommendation to hike among the sinkholes.

The solution suggested by Shahaf Homri of Ein Gedi is different. “Our recommendation is to build a cable car that will hover above the sinkholes up to the coast,” he says. “We’re asking the government – ‘you destroyed the nature site, come and help us to make it possible to develop tourism here, whether it’s a bridge or a cable car.’ The springs are here, the coast is here, but there needs to be a large investment in order to enjoy them safely.

המרחצאות החמים במינרל
The hot springs at Mineral Beach before their abandonment.Credit: Moshe Gilad

“We live in a very isolated place, and at present, that’s an advantage and a disadvantage,” he adds. “We want to be a place of refuge and renewal set in nature. That’s the difference between us and the hotels in the southern part of the Dead Sea. Here, there’s quiet and isolation, two hours from the center of the country. We want to be the place where you reboot your thoughts. Sitting in the warm water is like returning to the womb.”

The first problem pointed out by Homri and Lensky is the refusal of the insurance companies to insure hikers in the sinkhole area. The geological survey report mentions sites abroad where people hike in geothermal regions, like the geysers in Yellowstone Park in the U.S. In these areas, there’s a degree of risk that’s higher than the Dead Sea beaches, and there, they find insurance solutions that make it possible to allow and develop tourism.

In addition, according to the geologists studying the area, it’s imperative to combine updated early warnings on developing sinkholes with existing engineering solutions to make it safe to cross sinkhole areas.

From Ein Gedi, we drove northward to Mineral Beach. We sat east of the road, somewhat nervous. The sinkholes could be seen clearly from a short distance. They come large and small, round and jagged, but more than anything, they are intimidating. In a drone photo, the area resembles the surface of the moon. We didn’t try to go down to the beach,opting to prepare coffee on a camping stove.