Finding new life under the Dead Sea
Finding new life under the Dead SeaIsrael news photo: Christian Lott/The Hydra Institute

Deep beneath the sea bed of a body of water long believed incapable of sustaining life, scientists have discovered new micro-organisms.

Researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev announced Wednesday they have found deep fresh water springs on the floor of the Dead Sea.  These secret springs are apparently providing fresh water to the rapidly shrinking lake.

Meanwhile, a parallel study being conducted by German scientists has found new life forms in the mineral-laden waters.

The micro-organisms were discovered growing around the fissures in the sea floor.

The water level of the Dead Sea is dropping at an alarming rate – close to a meter a year, according to environmentalists.

The two research teams have been exploring groundwater springs that emanate from the sea floor in order to understand how the infusion of fresh water from the bottom of the sea impacts the unique ecosystem in the area.

The existence of the springs has been known for decades, as people have seen the ripples of water on the surface of the lake. However, scientists have discovered deep springs that were not visible from the shore.

Professor Jonathan Laronne and research student Yaniv Munwes developed the first system to directly measure spring discharge and to study the structure of the upward jet-like, plume flow as part of the German-funded SUMAR project. The two are members of BGU's Department of Geography and Environmental Development. Professional divers have also been involved in the work.

The findings show that there are systems of complex springs, hundreds of meters long and up to 30 meters deep. The springs appear through craters as large as 15 meters in diameter and 20 meters deep, with steep, finely laminated walls where there are alternating layers of sediment and minerals.

“By developing a measurement system for these springs, we will be able to determine more accurately how much water is really coming in to the Dead Sea,” commented Laronne.

While researchers have known for decades that the “Dead Sea” is a misnomer, the rich variety of life as evidenced in the vicinity of the springs was unexpected, said Dr. Danny Ionescu of the Microsensor Group, Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology, Bremen, Germany. Ionescu is leading the study of the micro-organisms.

While fish are not present, carpets of micro-organisms that cover large sea floor areas contain considerable richness of species, he said. The scientist has found some that were previously unknown in such highly saline environments, many unknown to science altogether.

“The micro-organisms in the Dead Sea water mainly belong to the domain Archaea, and they number around 1,000-10,000 per ml – much lower than regular sea water,” Ionescu said. But never before have microbial mats or biofilms been found in the Dead Sea, he added, and not much is known about sediment micro-organisms there.

These are not the same micro-organisms and algae which created a red tint in the waters of the Dead Sea in 1992, Ionescu said. Their discovery creates more questions.

An additional team is examining the connection between the mountain aquifer, springs occurring on land and submarine springs.

Dr. Christian Siebert, Dr. Stefan Geyer and doctoral student Ulf Mallast from the Hemholtz Center for Environmental Research – UFZ Halle, Germany, will explore the systems and their chemical properties together with Dead Sea expert Professor Aharon Oren of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The team is planning to return to the lake for more research in October.