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.
The group started extracting layers of the earth's core on Sunday and plan to continue for about 2 months until they reach a depth of 1,200 meters below sea level.
The rig, which is operated by the Utah-based non-profit DOSECC Exploration Services, will drill a five-cm-wide hole and core samples will then be sent to be analyzed and archived, said operations manager Beau Marshall.
"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.
"It's going to require us to keep everything well lubricated and cleaned up because the salt will wreak havoc on our equipment."
Like the rings on a tree trunk, sediment layers can tell the sea's history. The sea bed adds two layers of sediment every year and researchers hope they can analyze 500,000 years of geological history by extracting and studying the sediment layers.
"The sediments of the Dead Sea are the best climate and earthquake recorders for the entire Middle East," said project head Zvi Ben-Avraham (left on left of image) of the Israel Academy of Sciences, standing at the water's desert shore, which is already about 420 meters below sea level.
Ben-Avraham says the Dead Sea collects water run-off from the Sinai desert in Egypt up to the Golan Heights, which covers an area of about 42,000 square kilometers.
It also lies on a fault line between two continental plates which move at different speeds causing much tectonic activity.
Like 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.
Once extracted, the layer-cake of soil will be subjected to high-resolution examination by scientists from fields ranging from climate science to chemistry for clues about Earth's changing environment. (At left: example of sedimentary layers inland).
The team hopes to get new information on ancient rainfall, floods, droughts and earthquakes, and then use them in environmental studies to assist determining a way to fight global warming. Details about severe weather or major seismic activity could even provide insight into human migration in and out of the region.
"We believe that the results of this project will have vast implications in the fields of science and environment and will shed light on new natural resources," Zvi Ben-Avraham, a professor at Tel Aviv University, and Moti Stein, with the Israel Geological Survey, said in a joint statement.
"In addition, a historic hydro-geological environmental study of the Dead Sea will help unravel the mystery of human cultural evolution in this area," they added.
The study will also try to find an explanation for the Dead Sea's receding shoreline in recent years, which scientists blame on regional water mismanagement.
The project is part of the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, which has conducted studies across the globe in an effort to test geological models and 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.
The Dead Sea is a 378-meters-deep lake known as one of the world's saltiest bodies of water. It owes its name to its hyper-saline quality which does not let animals flourish.
The Dead Sea has attracted visitors from around the Mediterranean basin for thousands of years. It was one of the world's first health resorts and its salt and minerals are used in cosmetics and herbal sachets. 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.
PressTV, "Dead Sea secrets to fight global warming", accessed November 23, 2010
Yahoo News, "Researchers drill for secrets hidden under Dead Sea", accessed November 23, 2010
Reuters, "Researchers drill for secrets hidden under Dead Sea", accessed November 23, 2010
The Telegraph, "Scientists dig below Dead Sea to probe Earth's history", accessed November 23, 2010