Aquatic Geochemistry

, Volume 15, Issue 1–2, pp 159–194 | Cite as

Geochemical History of the Dead Sea

Original Paper

Graphical Abstract

A Southward view of the Dead Sea western coast. The steep western escarpment of the Dead Sea basin, composed mainly of Upper Cretaceous limestone and dolomite, can be seen on the right. Beach terraces left by the shrinking lake run parallel to the shore. The larger part of the area between the present water line and the mountains was still under Dead Sea water just 50–60 years ago. The current fall of the lake’s stand is around 1 m year−1.

Three on-shore sinkholes can be seen in the front of the photo, as well as two submerged ones near its lower left corner. These were caused by dissolution of a Holocene salt layer located tens of meters below the surface, resulting in the collapse of the overlying sediments. The retreat of the Dead Sea in recent years was followed by eastward migration of the freshwater–brine interface. This in turn brought diluted groundwater in contact with the subsurface salt layer, triggering its dissolution, and is considered as the culprit of the spreading phenomenon.

Many sinkholes contain brine that was left over by the receding Dead Sea and was trapped within the surrounding sediments. Once inside a sinkhole, these brines evolve chemically by evaporation to various degrees. The difference in color between the brine in the onshore sinkholes reflects salinity-related differences in their biology.


The evolution of the Dead Sea basin (DSB) brines from their birth in a Pliocene lagoon to their accommodation in the Dead Sea is described and discussed. The history of the brines is divided into two periods, corresponding to the successive depositional environments that prevailed in the DSB, namely a marine lagoon and an inland saline lake. Ancient Mediterranean seawater, supplied into the DSB lagoon through an inland channel from the north, was concentrated by evaporation into the halite field. The resulting Mg-enriched solution dolomitized surrounding, upper Cretaceous limestone, losing most of its Mg2+ to the limestone in exchange for Ca2+. Cretaceous marine Sr2+, concurrently released from the limestone into the brine, lowered its (Pliocene time) 87Sr/86Sr ratios. Consequently, a Ca-chloridic solution with lowered 87Sr/86Sr ratios was formed. Frequently changing conditions along the active Dead Sea rift enabled back-flow of the Ca-chloridic brines to the DSB, where they mixed with fresh seawater, unloading into the mixture their limestone-Sr. This process is reflected by the 87Sr/86Sr ratios (0.7082–0.7087) in the lagoon’s gypsum, dolomite, aragonite, and halite, which is intermediate between that of Pliocene seawater (0.709) and that in the upper Cretaceous limestone (0.7074–0.7077). Disconnection of the lagoon from the ancient Mediterranean brought about its end, and opened the (ongoing) lacustrine chapter of the DSB, without interrupting the reflux of Ca-chloride brine back into the basin. By that time, the chloridic brines processed by the lagoon became locked in a large, almost closed system reservoir in the DSB and vicinity. We propose that a Ca-chloridic lake, the DSB Lake, which was recharged by fresh runoff and by the returning brine, was born and existed in the DSB as of that time. Based on oxygen isotope data, the origin of the freshwater H2O was in Mediterranean rain. Geological evidence and theoretical calculations constrain the frequent fluctuations of the DSB Lake stand within a minimum of 430–450 and a maximum of 165 mbsl, and its corresponding salinity shifts to within 90 and 340 g l−1, relating these extremes to specific points in time and in the rock sequence. Stratification of the water column, brought about by increase in the inflow/evaporation ratio of the DSB Lake, was a frequent and normal situation, and accounts for the abundant, fine aragonite–detritus lamination in large parts of the DSB section. It is shown that aragonite laminae thicker than 0.1–0.2 mm are not annual deposits but accumulated during several years. Dissolved bicarbonate accumulated in the upper part of the rising lake water column, and was used up for aragonite crystallization upon the subsequent lake decline. Detritus laminae were formed during the respective winter seasons. While remaining Ca-chloridic throughout, the DSB Lake’s composition changed in time as a result of: (a) mixing with fresh waters; (b) removal of the SO42− and HCO3 imported into the lake in CaCO3 and CaSO4 minerals. A mass-balance model, explaining the change in the Mg/Ca ratio in the DSB Lake from its initial value (~0.16) is proposed, and its results are compatible with the composition of the saline springs. It demonstrates that the change in the Mg/Ca ratio in the DSB Lake is mainly caused by removal of Ca from the lake, required to compensate for the Ca < (SO4 + HCO3) relationship in the inflow freshwaters. The Mg/Ca ratio in the Dead Sea fluctuated between 4.2 and 4.6 during the last 50 years or so. Insufficient resolution makes it impossible to determine whether the observed changes vary systematically in time. Saline spring waters flow into and mix with the lake, evaporating together, thereby contributing their salts and changing the Dead Sea’s composition. The change is expressed in depletion of Ca, and in the enrichment of the lake in Mg, K, and Br, which do not form independent minerals therein. An attempt to predict the future of the Dead Sea is presented based on the chemical composition of brine in recent sinkholes developing along the Dead Sea coast, as well as on thermodynamic modeling of the Dead Sea brine evolution. The sinkhole brines are compatible with evaporative evolution of Dead Sea water and display salinities up to ~550 g l−1, within the bischofite range. Thermodynamic simulation predicts as well, that under current conditions Dead Sea water may evaporate to a level of not much below 550 mbsl. Simulated evaporation of Dead Sea water to a concentration factor of 50 yielded a 90 m thick column of chloride minerals containing halite, carnallite, bischofite, tachyhydrite, and CaCl2·4H2O (by that order).


Dead Sea Ca-chloride brine Dead Sea basin Stratification Lisan Amora Zeelim Samra Sinkholes Mount Sedom Dolomitization Water–rock interaction Sr isotopes 



The authors express their thanks to Ahuva Agranat, Enat Kasher, and Rivka Nisan for their technical assistance in chemical analyses of brine and water samples, and to Carmel Gorny and Olga Polin for helping in the preparation of the figures and tables. Fruitful discussions with Yehoshua Kolodny, Zvi Garfunkel, and with Adi Torfstein are greatly appreciated. Yossi Yechieli’s comments helped to clear up several problems. Two anonymous reviewers provided thoughtful and deep reviews which significantly improved the article. Research toward this article was funded by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy, grant # 039-7891 (2008).


  1. Abelson M, Yechieli Y, Crouvi O, Baer G, Wachs D, Bein A, Shtivelman V (2006) Evolution of the Dead Sea sinkholes. In: Enzel Y, Agnon A, Stein M (eds) New frontiers in the Dead Sea paleoenvironmental research. The Geological Society of America Special Paper 401, Boulder, pp 241–253Google Scholar
  2. Abu-Jaber NS (1998) A new look at the chemical and hydrological evolution of the Dead Sea. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 62:1471–1479CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Agnon A (1983) The evolution of depositional basins and morphotectonics in the southern part of the western fault escarpment of the Dead Sea. M.Sc. Thesis, The Hebrew University of JerusalemGoogle Scholar
  4. Anati DA (1993) How much salt precipitates from the brines of a hypersaline lake—the Dead-Sea as a case-Study. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 57:2191–2196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Arkin Y, Gilat A (2000) Dead Sea sinkholes—an ever growing hazard. Environ Geol 39:711–722CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Barkan E, Luz B, Lazar B (2001) Dynamics of the carbon dioxide system in the Dead Sea. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 65:355–368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bartov Y, Stein M, Enzel Y, Agnon A, Reches Z (2002) Lake levels and sequence stratigraphy of Lake Lisan, the late Pleistocene precursor of the Dead Sea. Quat Res 57:9–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Begin ZB, Ehrlich A, Nathan Y (1974) Lake Lisan, the Pleistocene precursor of the Dead Sea. Geol Surv Isr Bull 63:30Google Scholar
  9. Begin ZB, Stein M, Katz A, Machlus M, Rosenfeld A, Buchbinder B, Bartov Y (2004) Southward migration of rain tracks during the last glacial, revealed by salinity gradient in Lake Lisan (Dead Sea rift). Quat Sci Rev 23:1627–1636CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Belmonte Y, Hirtz P, Wenger R (1965) The salt basins of Gabon and the Congo (Brazzaville), a tentative paleographic interpretation. Salt basins around AfricaGoogle Scholar
  11. Bentor YK (1961) Some geochemical aspects of the Dead Sea and the question of its age. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 25:239–260CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bentor YK (1969) On the evolution of subsurface brines in Israel. Chem Geol 4:83–110CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Beyth M (1980) Recent evolution and present state of Dead sea brines. In: Nissenbaum A (ed) Bat-sheva symposium, pp 155–165Google Scholar
  14. Carpenter AB (1978) Origin and chemical evolution of brines in sedimentary basins. Okla Geol Surv Circ 79:60–67Google Scholar
  15. Ehrlich A, Noel D (1989) Sedimentation patterns in the Pleistocene Lake Lisan, precursor of the Dead Sea: new data from nanofacies analysis and the diatom floras. Cahiers de Micropaleontologie 3:5–21Google Scholar
  16. Farber E, Vengosh A, Gavrieli I, Marie A, Bullen TD, Mayer B, Holtzman R, Segal M, Shavit U (2004) The origin and mechanisms of salinization of the lower Jordan river. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 68(9):1989–2006CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Frumkin A (1997) The Holocene history of Dead Sea level. In: Niemi TM, Ben Avraham Z, Gat JR (eds) The Dead Sea: the lake and its setting. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  18. Garfunkel Z, Ben Avraham Z (1996) The structure of the Dead Sea basin. Tectonophysics 266:155–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gavrieli I (1987) The origin of halite bodies in the southern end of the Dead Sea. M.Sc. Thesis, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 112 ppGoogle Scholar
  20. Gavrieli I, Stein M (2006) On the origin and fate of the brines in the Dead Sea basin. In: Enzel Y, Agnon A, Stein M (eds). New frontiers in the Dead Sea paleoenvironmental research. The Geological Society of America Special Paper 401, BoulderGoogle Scholar
  21. Gavrieli I, Yechieli Y, Halicz L, Spiro B, Bein A, Efron D (2001) The sulfur system in anoxic subsurface brines and its implication in brine evolutionary pathways: the Ca-chloride brines in the Dead Sea area. Earth Planet Sci Lett 186:199–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Green WJ, Canfield DE (1984) Geochemistry of the Onyx River (Wright Valley, Antarctica) and its role in the chemical evolution of Lake Vanda. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 48:2457–2467CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Green WJ, Lyons WB (2008) The Saline Lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica. Aquat Geochem. doi:10.1007/s10498-008-9052-1 Google Scholar
  24. Haase-Schramm A, Goldstein SL, Stein M (2004) U-Th dating of Lake Lisan (late Pleistocene Dead Sea) aragonite and implications for glacial East Mediterranean climate change. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 68:985–1005CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Haliva A (2004) Mineralogy, petrography and isotopic ratios of fine-grained detrital sediments of the Dead Sea group: origin and transportation. M.Sc. Thesis, The Hebrew University of JerusalemGoogle Scholar
  26. Hall KH (1996) Digital topography and bathymetry of the area of the Dead Sea depression. Tectonophysics 266:177–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hanor JS (1990) Origin of saline fluids in sedimentary basins. In: Parnell J (ed) Geofluids: origin, migration and evolution of fluids in sedimentary basins. Geol Soc (Lond) Special Publication 78:151–174Google Scholar
  28. Hardie LA (1967) The gypsum-anhydrite equilibrium at one atmosphere pressure. Am Mineral 52:171–200Google Scholar
  29. Hardie LA (1990) The role of rifting and hydrothermal CaCl2 brines in the origin of potash evaporites. Am J Sci 290:43–106Google Scholar
  30. Horita J (2008) Isotopic evolution of saline lakes in low-latitude and polar regions. Aquat Geochem. doi:10.1007/s10498-008-9050-3 Google Scholar
  31. Horowitz A, Zak I (1968) Preliminary palynological analysis of an evaporitic sequence from Mount Sedom (Israel). Rev Paleobot Palynol 7:25–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Katz A (1971) Zoned dolomite crystals. J Geol 79:38–51Google Scholar
  33. Katz A (1973) The interaction of magnesium with calcite during crystal growth at 25–90°C and one atmosphere. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 37:1563–1586CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Katz A, Kolodny N (1989) Hypersaline brine diagenesis and evolution in the Dead-Sea Lake Lisan system (Israel). Geochim Cosmochim Acta 53:59–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Katz A, Kolodny Y, Nissenbaum A (1977) The geochemical evolution of the Pleistocene Lake Lisan-Dead Sea system. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 41:1609–1626CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Katz A, Starinsky A, Taitel-Goldman N, Beyth M (1981) Solubilities of gypsum and halite in the Dead-Sea and in its mixtures with seawater. Limnol Oceanogr 26:709–716CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Klein C (1965) On the fluctuations of the Dead Sea since the beginning of the 19th century. Jerusalem 83Google Scholar
  38. Klein C (1982) Morphological evidence of lake level changes, western shore of the Dead Sea. Isr J Earth Sci 31:67–94Google Scholar
  39. Klein-BenDavid O, Sass E, Katz A (2004) The evolution of marine evaporitic brines in inland basins: the Jordan-Dead Sea rift valley. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 68:1763–1775CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Koepnic RB, Burke WH, Denison RE, Hetherington EA, Nelson NF, Otto JB, Waite LE (1985) Construction of the seawater 87Sr/86Sr curve for the Cenozoic and the Cretaceous: supporting data. Chem Geol 58:55–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kolodny Y, Stein M, Machlus M (2005) Sea-rain-lake relation in the Last Glacial East Mediterranean revealed by a δ18O–δ13C in Lake Lisan aragonites. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 69:4045–4060CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Krumgalz BS, Millero FJ (1982a) Physicochemical study of Dead-Sea waters. 2. Density measurements and equation of state of Dead-Sea waters at 1 atm. Mar Chem 11:477–492CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Krumgalz BS, Millero FJ (1982b) Physicochemical study of the Dead-Sea waters. 1. Activity-coefficients of major ions in Dead Sea water. Mar Chem 11:209–222CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Krumgalz BS, Millero FJ (1983) Physicochemical study of Dead-Sea waters. 3. On gypsum saturation in Dead-Sea waters and their mixtures with Mediterranean seawater. Mar Chem 13:127–139CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Krumgalz BS, Hecht A, Starinsky A, Katz A (2000) Thermodynamic constraints on Dead Sea evaporation: can the Dead Sea dry up? Chem Geol 165:1–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Krumgalz BS, Magdal E, Starinsky A (2002) The evolution of a chloride sedimentary sequence—simulated evaporation of the Dead Sea. Isr J Earth Sci 51:253–268CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lerman A (1967) Model of chemical evolution of a chloride lake—Dead Sea. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 31:2309–2330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lerman A, Shatkay A (1968) Dead Sea brines—degree of halite saturation by electrode measurements. Earth Planet Sci Lett 5:63–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lowenstein TK, Risacher F (2008) Closed basin brine evolution and the influence of Ca–Cl inflow waters: Death Valley and Bristol Dry Lake California, Qaidam basin, China, and Salar de Atacama, Chile. Aquat Geochem. doi:10.1007/s10498-008-9046-z Google Scholar
  50. MacDonald GF (1953) Anhydrite-gypsum equilibrium relations. Am J Sci 251:884–898Google Scholar
  51. Machlus M, Enzel Y, Goldstein SL, Marco S, Stein M (2000) Reconstructing low levels of Lake Lisan by correlating fan-delta and lacustrine deposits. Quat Int 73–4:137–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Matmon D (1995) Simulations of groundwater flow between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Rift Valley. M.Sc. Thesis, The Hebrew University of JerusalemGoogle Scholar
  53. Mazor E, Rosenthal E, Ekstein J (1969) Geochemical tracing of mineral water sources in the south western Dead Sea basin, Israel. J Hydrol 7:246–248CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Migowski C, Agnon A, Bookman R, Negendank JFW, Stein M (2004) Recurrence pattern of Holocene earthquakes along the Dead Sea transform revealed by varve-counting and radiocarbon dating of lacustrine sediments. Earth Planet Sci Lett 222:301–314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Migowski C, Stein M, Prasad S, Negendank JFW, Agnon A (2006) Holocene climate variability and cultural evolution in the near east from the Dead Sea sedimentary record. Quat Res 66:421–431CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Moise T (1996) Radon and radium isotopes in waters along the Jordan–Arava Rift Valley. M.Sc. Thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 162 ppGoogle Scholar
  57. Moise T, Starinsky A, Katz A, Kolodny Y (2000) Ra isotopes and Rn in brines and ground waters of the Jordan-Dead Sea rift valley: enrichment, retardation, and mixing. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 64:2371–2388CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Neev D, Emery KO (1967) The Dead Sea: depositional processes and environments of evaporites. Geol Surv Isr Bull 41:1–147Google Scholar
  59. Neev D, Hall JK (1979) Geophysical investigations in the Dead Sea. Sediment Geol 23:209–238CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Pitzer KS (1991) Ion interaction approach: theory and data correlation. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FLGoogle Scholar
  61. Raab M (1996) The origin of the evaporites in the Jordan-Arava valley in view of the evolution of brines and evaporites during seawater evaporation. Ph.D. Thesis, The Hebrew University of JerusalemGoogle Scholar
  62. Raz E (1983) The geology of the Judea desert. Geol Surv Isr Jerus 83/3:130 pGoogle Scholar
  63. Shalev E, Yechieli Y (2007) The effect of Dead Sea level fluctuations on the discharge of thermal springs. Isr J Earth Sci 56:19–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Shoval S (1989) Minerals precipitation during the evaporation of Dead Sea waters. Isr Geol Soc Ann. MeetGoogle Scholar
  65. Stanhill G (1994) Changes in the rate of evaporation from the Dead Sea. Int J Climatol 14:465–471CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Stanislavsky E, Gvirtzman H (1999) Basin-scale migration of continental-rift brines: paleohydrologic modeling of the Dead Sea basin. Geology 27:791–794CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Starinsky A (1974) Relationship between Ca-chloride brines and sedimentary rocks in Israel. Ph.D. Thesis, The Hebrew UniversityGoogle Scholar
  68. Stein M, Starinsky A, Katz A, Goldstein SL, Machlus M, Schramm A (1997) Strontium isotopic, chemical, and sedimentological evidence for the evolution of Lake Lisan and the Dead Sea. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 61:3975–3992CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Stein M, Starinsky A, Agnon A, Katz A, Raab M, Spiro B, Zak I (2000) The impact of brine–rock interaction during marine evaporite formation on the isotopic Sr record in the oceans: evidence from Mt. Sedom, Israel. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 64:2039–2053CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Stein M, Agnon A, Katz A, Starinsky A (2002) Strontium isotopes in discordant dolomite bodies of the Judea group, Dead Sea basin. Isr J Earth Sci 51:219–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Steinhorn I, Assaf G, Gat JR, Nishry A, Nissenbaum A, Stiller M, Beyth M, Neev D, Garber R, Friedman GM, Weiss W (1979) Dead Sea—deepening of the mixolimnion signifies the overture to overturn of the water column. Science 206:55–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Torfstein A (2008) Brine freshwater interplay and effects on the evolution of saline lakes: the Dead Sea Rift terminal lakes. Ph.D. Thesis, The Hebrew University of JerusalemGoogle Scholar
  73. Waldmann N (2002) The geology of the Samra formation in the Dead Sea basin. M.Sc. Thesis, The Hebrew University of JerusalemGoogle Scholar
  74. Wardlaw NC (1972) Unusual marine evaporatives with salts of calcium and magnesium chlorides in Cretaceous basins of Sergipe. Braz Econ Geol 67:156–168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Weinberger R, Agnon A, Ron H (1997) Paleomagnetic reconstruction of the structure of Mt. Sedom, Dead Sea rift. J.Geophys Res 102:5173–5192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Weinberger R, Begin ZB, Waldmann N, Gardosh M, Baer G, Frumkin A, Wdowinski S (2006) Quaternary rise of the Sedom diapir, Dead Sea basin. In: Enzel Y, Agnon A, Stein M (eds) New frontiers in the Dead Sea paleoenvironmental research. The Geological Society of America Special Paper, BoulderGoogle Scholar
  77. Yechieli Y (2006) Response of the groundwater system to changes in the Dead Sea level. In: Enzel Y, Agnon A, Stein M (eds) New frontiers in the Dead Sea paleoenvironmental research. The Geological Society of America Special Paper, BoulderGoogle Scholar
  78. Yechieli Y, Magaritz M, Levy Y, Weber U, Kafri U, Woelfli W, Bonani G (1993) Late quaternary geological history of the Dead-Sea area, Israel. Quat Res 39:59–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Yechieli Y, Gavrieli I, Berkowitz B, Ronen D (1998) Will the dead sea die? Geology 26:755–758CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Zak I (1967) The geology of Mount Sedom. Ph.D. Thesis, The Hebrew University of JerusalemGoogle Scholar
  81. Zak I (1997) Evolution of the Dead Sea brines. In: Niemi TM, Ben-Avraham Z, Gat JR (eds) The Dead Sea, the lake and its setting. Oxford monographs on Geology and Geophysics, vol 36. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 133–144Google Scholar
  82. Zilberman-Kron T (2008) The source and geochemical evolution of the brines in sinkholes along the western shore of the Dead Sea. M.Sc. Thesis, The Hebrew University of JerusalemGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Earth SciencesThe Hebrew University of Jerusalem, The Edmond Safra CampusJerusalemIsrael

Personalised recommendations