Scientists Drill for Secrets Hidden Beneath Dead Sea

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From a barge floating above the deepest point on earth, a research team hopes to drill through half a million years of history to uncover secrets of climate change and natural disasters.

Boring into the bed of the Dead Sea, the group of engineers and scientists began extracting layers of the earth's core on Sunday, and will continue for about two months until they reach a depth of 1,200 meters below sea level.

"The sediments of the Dead Sea are the best climate and earthquake recorders for the entire Middle East," said project head Zvi Ben-Avraham of the Israel Academy of Sciences, standing at the water's desert shore, which is already about 420 meters below sea level.

The Dead Sea, Ben-Avraham said, collects water run-off from Egypt's Sinai desert up to the Golan Heights, an area of about 42,000 square km, providing plenty of material for climate research.

It is also on a fault line between two continental plates moving at different speeds, causing much tectonic activity.

Just as trees have rings, the sea bed adds two layers of sediment every year. The team will analyze 500,000 years of geological history, deciphering patterns and using them to help understand the future, said Ben-Avraham.

They will extract information on ancient rainfall, floods, droughts and earthquakes that can then be used in studies on how to best deal with global warming.

The Dead Sea is a favorite spot for tourists because of the buoyant and healing properties of its extremely salty waters. It is also among 14 finalists in a global Internet vote to choose seven wonders of the natural world.

But scientists and environmentalists have been scrambling in recent years to come up with a solution to the lake's receding shoreline, for which many blame regional water mismanagement. The team hopes the drilling may provide some historical insight.

The project is part of the International Continental Drilling Program, which has seen dozens of holes drilled across the globe in an effort to find the best way to manage the earth's resources and environment.

Ben-Avraham said taking part in the Dead Sea project are members from around the world, including neighboring Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The drilling falls within Israel's borders.

Operating the rig day and night, and contending with the water's high salt concentration, is a team from Utah-based DOSECC, a non-profit corporation which works on similar projects around the world.

They will drill a five-cm-wide hole, which is much smaller than those used to find oil, and not stop until they reach 500 meters, said operations manager Beau Marshall. Core samples will then be sent to be analyzed and archived, he said.

"We've drilled a lot of fresh water lakes, we've done some salt water activity as well, but the Dead Sea is quite unique," Marshall said on the barge, floating higher than it does in normal waters. "It's going to require us to keep everything well lubricated and cleaned up because the salt will wreak havoc on our equipment."