Though the Dead Sea is normally a shimmering, pale blue pond of salt about 20 miles wide, a growing list of treasures are escaping its gaze.
By 2100, the Earth’s oldest red sponge, a rare orange jellyfish, will be swallowed up by the salt-eating organisms that are closing in on the protected area, scientists say. With that giant gulp, Jordan, a country facing threats from terrorist threats and a shrinking economy, is fighting for some of the world’s strangest and most extraordinary natural treasures.
“The future lies not in living in the past, but in being a remarkable future and innovating our way to do things,” Prime Minister Hani Mulki told a crowd that included Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and five Nobel laureates at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “It’s about finding innovative ways to save our natural heritage. It’s about supporting innovation in economic development. And it’s about creating ways to build knowledge for a better future.”
Jordan is a central front in the fight against global warming and its effects on wildlife, shrinking glaciers and the collapse of coastal wetlands. The country’s modest collection of archaeological sites includes the ruins of Petra, discovered in the 10th century; and the ancient rock-cut Citadel of Jerash, destroyed in 1951 when a major geologic shift caused the sea to retreat and flood Jordan’s beautiful highlands, known as Petra’s Mountain.
To mitigate the effects of global warming, Jordan’s former fishing ports have been converted into tourist hubs, and the only surviving source of salt in Jordan is piped from beneath the sea and distributed by the Jordan River. The country is also a major operator of water desalination plants.
The nation-wide fishing operation is also bringing Jordan, a country of 6.4 million people, additional revenues. Annual fishing revenue is estimated at about $300 million.
But one industry that is struggling to survive is tourism. With tourist numbers declining—only 7.6 million visitors have come to Jordan in the past decade—the government hopes to reverse the trend by having more of these tourists stay in Jordan’s hotels rather than buying hotels as hedonistic souvenirs.
Jordan’s beaches are now more coveted by local refugees fleeing the war in Syria, who are in the process of rebuilding their shattered homes after fleeing to Jordan at the outbreak of the civil war.
Cultural visits, including one that started at the Dead Sea site and continued on to Petra, proved to be a hit in recent years, and officials hope to roll out more tours. At the height of tourism, revenue from tourism alone was 5.3 percent of Jordan’s Gross Domestic Product.
“The motivation is that Jordan would be a very different country if it had 10 percent of its GDP coming from the tourism sector,” said Ahed Almasri, the secretary general of the Jordan Tourism Board.
In many instances, Jordan’s wading pools and other landmarks of its natural world are at risk, noted Hayne Birkeland, a marine conservationist who specializes in dolphin and endangered species protection.
The Wadi Rum saltwater springs, also known as the Dead Sea, are increasingly vulnerable to salt poaching and worsening oxygen depletion in the springs, Birkeland said.
Jordan has a “vision” of hosting water events that will include wild swimming, kayaking and “eatertainment,” meaning man-made gondolas with offerings such as luxury suites of food and alcohol, should they happen, according to a document on the environmental and socioeconomic impact of tourism on Jordan. The next World Science Festival is taking place in the Middle East next year.
Celestials elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, including those in Egypt, are threatened by catastrophic water shortages that could dry up entire valley ecosystems in coming decades.
Not all visitors to the Dead Sea area see the water behind its current Western edge. According to Sara Hirshorn, a founder of Preserve the Dead Sea, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the area, the ocean is present as far up as 4 miles (6 kilometers) away, soaking up volumes of water while the current is still rising.
Through volunteer programs, the organization has been working with conservation officials, tour operators and some universities to repopulate the Dead Sea with fishes that grow to adulthood there.
In future, program participants could teach youngsters, Hirshorn said, the story of the Dead Sea’s natural legacy.
Hirshorn also said the organization is collaborating with universities and universities in the United States to engage young people around the world in a “virtual Dead Sea” effort to use satellite imagery to track the sea’s decline over time