Will we still float like penguins?

Visiting professor prepares model he says can predict impact of proposed Red-Dead Canal.

dead sea 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
dead sea 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tourists might no longer be able to float in the Dead Sea and the body of water could turn white or even red if the Med-Dead Canal project proceeds, according to Portland State University Prof. Scott Wells, who has created a computer model he claims can predict the environmental impact of the proposed project on the Dead Sea. Wells is one of the world's foremost experts in modeling water systems and is here for the year as a Fulbright scholar. "The model is predictive at this point," Wells told The Jerusalem Post from his office at the Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem. He is awaiting approval from the survey to run the model, and even to share any of his thoughts about what answers it might yield. Built during his fellowship here, the model incorporates reams of field data to predict the impact of dumping either sea water or brine from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea to top it up. "The Dead Sea is a unique system. The salinity violates all known principles, so we had to create a new model rather than rehashing an old model from another lake. The complexity of the system is very rich, which makes it intriguing," the professor said. The Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal, which received a boost from President Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Tshuva on Thursday, would run 320 km. from the Red Sea, bringing sea water to stabilize the falling Dead Sea water level. The Dead Sea has been shrinking over a meter a year for the last several decades because its natural source, the Jordan River, has been diverted farther upstream. At this point, the only thing that runs into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River is sewage and effluence from the fish ponds along its route. "The spa at Ein Gedi, which used to be on the water, now offers guests the option of using a golf cart to reach the water, rather than walking all the way," Wells noted by way of illustration. While the Dead Sea will eventually stabilize, Wells said, it would probably do so at a much lower level than even its current state. As a result of the shrinkage, much of the ground revealed by the receding water is tremendously unstable. Sinkholes abound and could threaten the highway which runs alongside it. In 2000, a flash flood tore down a bridge near Ein Gedi in less than an hour, Wells said. Wells is completing the computer program now and is awaiting permission from the Survey to hit the enter button and run the model. He refused to tell the Post what he has discovered so far or what he suspects will happen when he runs the model, citing stringent restrictions imposed by the Survey. Wells's model looks at some fundamental questions vis-a-vis the impact of the canal on the Dead Sea. "Will people still float like penguins? That's a pretty major concern for this particular tourist attraction," he noted. "Will the sea turn white because of the creation of gypsum, which could crystallize and obscure the clarity which the water has now?" he said. "Or will you get a layer of life on the Dead Sea? Will the sea turn red if a layer of daniella algae [which is red] starts to grow?" According to Wells, the biggest question surrounding the canal project is: What do Israel and Jordan want? Since the canal would be totally man-made and maintained, it's merely a matter of deciding how high to refill the sea. Wells was unperturbed by the calculated nature of the canal project and the blatant human manipulation of the environment, for "we caused the problem in the first place" by damming up the Jordan River, he said. Wells has modeled over a hundred different water systems all over the world and the United States. One of his previous projects was to map the Nepa River system in Kiev to determine what the effect was of the radiation which fell into the sea after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. Years after the event, the radiation had bonded with particles in the sea and was being churned up by spring floodwaters. Wells's research here in Israel is being supported by the United States-Israel Educational Foundation - Fulbright. The foundation organizes student and faculty exchange programs at the highest levels in conjunction with the US's well known Fulbright Program. Over 1,000 US citizens and 1,500 Israelis have participated in the foundation's programs since its inception in 1956. In recent years, grants awarded have reached $1.2 million a year to about 30-40 Israelis who go to the US and about 20-25 Americans who come here each year. Notable Israeli alumni of the Fulbright Program include former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, Nobel Laureate Prof. Aaron Ciechanover, A.B. Yehoshua, and Yoram Turbovich, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chief of staff.