Experts are warning that could see an increased frequency of landslides akin to the one that struck Nahal David on Thursday, killing an eight-year-old boy as he hiked with his family.
The growing danger comes from the interplay of natural and human-induced global warming which is accelerating the retreat of the Dead Sea.
“The whole area is very fragile,” said Noam Bedein, founder and director of the Dead Sea Revival Project. “You do not have good infrastructure, and anything could erupt anytime.”
Landslides occur when the inherent equilibrium of a slope is disrupted, often triggered by factors such as intense rainfall, periods of drought, seismic activities like earthquakes, or even volcanic eruptions, explained Prof. Shmuel Marco of the Department of Geophysical, Atmospheric and Planetary Science at Tel Aviv University.
In the Dead Sea region context, instability arises from a multifaceted interplay of factors. On the one hand, tectonic forces play a pivotal role due to the geographical positioning of the area. Positioned at the juncture of two tectonic plates, with Israel and Sinai on one side and the Arabian region encompassing Jordan and Syria on the other, these plates are sliding past each other. The eastern side gradually shifts northward while the western side moves southward, potentially leading to regional uplift.
On the other hand, explained Dr. Ariel Heimann, a senior researcher at the INSS, the Dead Sea is rapidly receding at a rate of as much as a meter a year. As the sea recedes, the water flowing from the rivers to the sea speeds up. Fast water erodes more material than slow water.
The mountains of Jordan and Judea are hundreds of meters high. When their foundations erode, these high cliffs become unstable.
What causes a landslide?Anything can kick off a landslide, Marco said. It can be something as trivial as an animal passing through the slope and disturbing the wrong stone. A landslide can start very small and ultimately cause a cascade.
“We don’t know yet what happened in this particular case,” Marco said. “It may have even started from a tiny earthquake so small that we did not even feel it, but it set off a landslide.”
Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman said that a special committee would be formed to investigate the cause of Thursday’s event.
Marco stressed that landslides are “impossible to predict” and that the best one can do is map vulnerable slopes. But even then, in the case of the Judean Desert, “the whole desert is vulnerable. So you have to put things in perspective.”
The memorial for the Neot HaKikar disaster in 1970. (credit: WIKIMEDIA)Until now, the likelihood of a dangerous landslide coinciding with human presence was exceedingly low. The most recent instance of such an occurrence took place on December 30, 1970, triggered by intense rainfall. During this event, a segment of a 12-meter-high cliff in the Neot HaKikar moshav abruptly collapsed and catastrophically struck the dining facility of an Israel Defense Force base. This incident claimed the lives of nineteen soldiers and one civilian while also leaving 10 soldiers wounded, with several sustaining severe injuries.
Marco said that he does not believe that people will have to stop traveling in the region. However, there is concern that these events could become more frequent.
The Dead Sea has become increasingly vulnerable, explained Bedein. He told The Jerusalem Post that there are 7,000 sinkholes on the Dead Sea shoreline, and around 700 new sinkholes appear every year, rendering 98% of the coastline inaccessible and dangerous to humans.
In 2018, an unfortunate incident unfolded as 10 teenagers lost their lives due to a sudden flash flood during a hike in the Judean Desert, brought on by unexpected and untimely rainfall in the region.
As the water subsides and sinkholes multiply, the water’s force gains momentum and intensity on the terrain.
Bedein pointed out that addressing this issue in Israel would require substantial time and resources, with a minimum of a decade and billions of dollars necessary to implement any practical solution to curb the Dead Sea’s receding. Instead, he emphasized embracing innovative and imaginative approaches to coexist harmoniously with these natural transformations.
In the last 20,00 years, the world is coming out of an ice age and into an interglacial period, Marco added – a warmer period with more rain in the rainy part of the world and less in the desert. Human activity only enhances the process.
“I think we will see more and more acute events,” Marco concluded. “The cliffs will become steeper, and I don’t know if there is anything we can do about it at this stage.”
Human Activity Isn’t Just Warming the Planet, It’s Causing Earthquakes
People knew we could induce earthquakes before we knew what they were. As soon as people started to dig minerals out of the ground, rockfalls and tunnel collapses must have become recognized hazards.
Today, earthquakes caused by humans occur on a much greater scale. Events over the last century have shown mining is just one of many industrial activities that can induce earthquakes large enough to cause significant damage and death. Filling of water reservoirs behind dams, extraction of oil and gas, and geothermal energy production are just a few of the modern industrial activities shown to induce earthquakes.
As more and more types of industrial activity were recognized to be potentially seismogenic, the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij BV, an oil and gas company based in the Netherlands, commissioned us to conduct a comprehensive global review of all human-induced earthquakes.
Our work assembled a rich picture from the hundreds of jigsaw pieces scattered throughout the national and international scientific literature of many nations. The sheer breadth of industrial activity we found to be potentially seismogenic came as a surprise to many scientists. As the scale of industry grows, the problem of induced earthquakes is increasing also.
In addition, we found that, because small earthquakes can trigger larger ones, industrial activity has the potential, on rare occasions, to induce extremely large, damaging events.
How Humans Induce EarthquakesAs part of our review we assembled a database of cases that is, to our knowledge, the fullest drawn up to date. On Jan. 28, we will release this database publicly. We hope it will inform citizens about the subject and stimulate scientific research into how to manage this very new challenge to human ingenuity.
Our survey showed mining-related activity accounts for the largest number of cases in our database.
Earthquakes Caused by Humans
Last year, the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij BV commissioned a comprehensive global review of all human-induced earthquakes. The sheer breadth of industrial activity that is potentially seismogenic came as a surprise to many scientists. These examples are now cataloged at The Induced Earthquakes Database.
Earth Science ReviewsInitially, mining technology was primitive. Mines were small and relatively shallow. Collapse events would have been minor – though this might have been little comfort to anyone caught in one.
But modern mines exist on a totally different scale. Precious minerals are extracted from mines that may be over two miles deep or extend several miles offshore under the oceans. The total amount of rock removed by mining worldwide now amounts to several tens of billions of tons per year. That’s double what it was 15 years ago – and it’s set to double again over the next 15. Meanwhile, much of the coal that fuels the world’s industry has already been exhausted from shallow layers, and mines must become bigger and deeper to satisfy demand.
As mines expand, mining-related earthquakes become bigger and more frequent. Damage and fatalities, too, scale up. Hundreds of deaths have occurred in coal and mineral mines over the last few decades as a result of earthquakes up to magnitude 6.1 that have been induced.
Other activities that might induce earthquakes include the erection of heavy superstructures. The 700-megaton Taipei 101 building, raised in Taiwan in the 1990s, was blamed for the increasing frequency and size of nearby earthquakes.
Since the early 20th century, it has been clear that filling large water reservoirs can induce potentially dangerous earthquakes. This came into tragic focus in 1967 when just five years after the 32-mile-long Koyna reservoir in west India was filled, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck, killing at least 180 people and damaging the dam.