Can The Dead Sea Be The Key To Global Survival?

View of the Dead Sea Coastline DEPOSIT PHOTOS

This is not an article about climate change. There are enough articles and research papers to support and oppose its existence. Instead, this is a story about a place that is a manifestation of extreme conditions – an imminent reality for the rest of the world. This narrative is about a place that has evolved over time and while the connotations of the Dead Sea dying have been revealed, the opposite is true. This is a story about how extreme conditions have forced its inhabitants to adapt and thrive. This same place has welcomed researchers from all over the world to converge their lessons from nature towards the materializing global crisis had a conversation with a young lady, only 17 years of age but wise beyond her years. Elizabeth Kay is a high school student in Toronto and a self-proclaimed vegan, a conscious choice she made because of today’s climate reality. Elizabeth cares deeply for her future but is concerned about the toll it will take on hers and the lives of future generations. What she expressed revealed a sense of anguish and futility:

Without a substantial change in the actions of industrialized countries, my life in 10 years will be chaotic. In 10 years when my generation will be in control, we will be scrambling to fix the mistakes of the past.

Our future and our children's future greatly depends on the actions that take place in the present day. There are events occurring because of the climate crisis that could be irreversible by the time me and my generation will have any say in the decisions made. We may not have a say before the ozone's damage is irreversible; we may not have a say before our rainforest is destroyed, and we may not have a say before our oceans are fully polluted. My generation is dependent on the steps taken TODAY to fix the damage being done to our planet. We have no other choice but to trust people who have not shown the urgency that is necessary for our planet to thrive.

I just returned from the Dead Sea. As the lowest inhabited place on earth, its shores and water surface are approximately 430 m below sea level. The salinity is almost 10 times higher than most seas with a 32% w/v ratio. Some forms of bacteria and algae are able to flourish among the high concentration of sodium chloride and other minerals. The bitter-salt and mineral-rich sea is renowned for one of the earth’s Natural Wonders, treating common skin and muscle ailments. The low elevation in this region also means that the UV radiation is greatly reduced with richer oxygen and much lower pollution levels. Dr. Mira Marcus-Kalish, Director of International Research Collaboration at Tel Aviv University, states:

It is inimitable in its extraordinary combination of nature’s basic elements – air, sun earth and water – unparalleled anywhere else on earth. This creates a unique micro and macro biological environment, unique in geography, geology, climate, minerals, flora and fauna… and is the cradle of human civilization with a long heritage of industry and therapeutic activities.

Dr. Marcus-Kalish invited me to the Dead Sea Research Institute at Masada to attend the second Global Scientific Summit: Life in Extreme Conditions – A Lesson from Nature.

Established in 2016, The Dead Sea Research Institute is a joint effort among Mayor Dov Litvinoff of the Tamar Region, the Dead Sea & Arava R&D Centre, KA Foundation, Tel Aviv University, and the Porter Foundation.

The Global Scientific Summit was attended by a select group of researchers in environmental studies, nanotechnology, anthropology, microbiology, biophysics, etc.  Mira’s goal was to target innovation, creativity and brainstorming among top researchers in their respective fields to join forces towards the well-being of humanity:

The timing is perfect. Just the other day, there was a global protest among young people against the activities that have led to our climate crisis. In parallel, we need to leverage the gifts of this unique region, and the Dead Sea Summit is the lesson we can take from its evolution, its adaptation, its natural selection, and ultimately, its survival. This is really about converging science and technologies. Let's learn from the lowest place on earth, the saltiest sea, and the extreme conditions faced and tolerated by man, the plants, the animals over time.

Prof Joseph Klafter, President, Tel Aviv University, who has been instrumental in creating this multi-disciplinary research center and a hub for innovation quipped,

I’m telling you, no other university president has gone lower to establish this Institute and bring some of the best researchers here... Tel Aviv University is the most comprehensive university, and we have a unique approach to break down barriers among academic disciplines and to allow students, for example, from psychology, computer science and linguists – all studying the human brain – to learn together and from each other. I saw an opportunity to assemble various disciplines at the Dead Sea, as this unique spot on earth to study the conditions, the microbiome, the algae, the ecology...

The Anthropocene: A New Era that has been Human-Induced

Professor Jagadish Shukla, Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences of George Mason University contends human activity has profoundly altered the planet’s geological and environmental conditions over time. Between 1950 and 2010, reveals population growth and consumption per capita have both played comparable roles in the extraordinary human impact on planet Earth.

Relationship between Population and GDP 1-2010 JAGADISH SHUKLA, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY

Over time, population growth in urban areas has led to urban sprawl, the expanded development of housing, buildings and transportation systems. In time, as incomes grew, we’ve witnessed increased consumerism which has led to a burgeoning demand for our natural resources:  our water, our minerals, our sand, our forests. What progress has forged, has also culminated in trade-offs against our ecosystem. We’ve seen instances of this in droughts, floods, forest fires, extreme weather, melting glaciers, the loss of ecosystems and extinction of species (biodiversity). The domino effect is evident. From Syria to Venezuela, to Vietnam we lay witness to food shortages, water wars, violence, and human migration. The World Bank estimates143 million people will be “climate migrants” escaping water and food scarcity and rising sea levels – all coming from developing economies.

Lessons from Nature are Compelling

For this team of researchers from across scientific disciplines, advancements have been made in identifying elements in nature that could very well contribute to environmental and human sustainability. I’ve highlighted a few of those research outcomes here:

Humans are living longer. Can science enable anti-aging strategies in anticipation of rising health care costs?

Prof Sam Stupp, from the Simpson Querrey Institute for Bio-Inspired Science & Technology, studied the self-assembly of molecules in nature – which he referred to as “spontaneous organisms” and experimented with creating forms of materials that were bioactive, and therefore able to signal cells to contribute value to Regenerative Medicine like kidney regeneration, spinal fusion, minimizing stroke dysfunctions, accessing new cartilage and muscle, to name a few.

In other research, Professor Stupp demonstrated potential solutions in the wake of growing deforestation and endangerment of our food production. He described his team’s concept to imitate the materials involved in plant photosynthesis like leaves to create a synthetic molecule, which has the capacity to absorb light from the sun and transport those charges to advance the production of food. What transpired in the process was a discovery: by adding sodium to the synthetic molecules, it caused a crystallization, which was found to be key in the production of hydrogen fuel.

Dr. Iftach Yacoby, Head of Laboratory for Renewable Studies, at the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University also acknowledged the urgency of food security. He points to the importance agriculture has played in human sustainability for the last 20,000 years and, adversely, the role which fossil fuels have played. He now offers a novel alternative in producing hydrogen energy from engineered enzymes.  Both Stupp and Yacoby stress hydrogen is the energy resource of the future: it is renewable, carbon-free, contains more energy per kilogram than gasoline and can be produced anywhere on the planet.

What happens when water becomes scarce? This is a reality today. According to the WEF: today ⅔ of the global population face water shortages - the bulk of those populations are in China and India. According to this study:

More than half of the world's 37 largest aquifers are losing water due to population and climate stresses...  21 of the 37 largest aquifers; water is being drained at a greater rate than it is being naturally replenished.

groundwater is now increasingly relied upon during times of drought as a resilient water supply source… and is currently the primary source of freshwater for approximately two billion people.

Prof. David L. Feldman - Urban Planning and Public Policy, School of Social Ecology University of California, Irvine studies water conflicts and the demise of inland seas and also communicates on the global policy challenges. He offered two use cases where both the Dead Sea and the Salton Sea (in California), which, if depleted, would have grave economic, ecological and political impacts locally and globally. The inland seas have historically supported industrialization, mining, and large-scale agriculture. This has contributed to the diversion of water resources, diminishing water volumes without replenishment and degrading impacts on health and local economies.  For residents in Ein Gedi, near the Dead Sea, they are demanding action from the government as they watch the “land crumble around them”. In the Salton Sea, the transfer of water to urban areas has created more dust containing silicates, and toxic salts that cause asthma, lung and heart disease. Joint restoration projects among Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis have been instrumental in setting aside long-standing political differences to tackle the water crisis. This, in itself, offers a prophecy about humanity’s strength.

Prof. Jonathan Trent - Director, OMEGA Global Initiative; Biomolecular Engineering, UC Santa Cruz, NASA examined the threat of food scarcity.  He stated,

We fail to see the huge amounts of energy we extract from the environment to support our lifestyles, and we take for granted the elaborate and tenuous supply chains that support them.  What we take for granted is clearly not sustainable… We are 9 meals away from anarchy…

Dr. Trent developed the Omega project, through NASA in 2013 to understand what life on earth would look like in the year 2030.  By that point, the earth will have 8 billion people. The combination of urbanization, increased affluence and changes to our climate create a perfect storm in the planet’s need for more food (35% increase), water (45%) and energy (50%).  This food/water/energy is interwoven. Together, they are the “taken-for-granted” supply chain. What arose from the research were some disturbing revelations:

  • ⅓ of the earth’s energy is used in grazing animals
  • of the proportion of land used for agriculture, over 77% is used for livestock
  • 40% of the grain produced for livestock is enough to feed 1 billion people

The feed to food conversion stats concluded that beef and pigs were the most inefficient in converting feed to food at ratios of 8:1 and 4:1 respectively. Fish products, on the other hand, had proven to be the most efficient. Eventually, the Omega group developed a system, leveraging the waste from livestock and fish as a resource to feed into another ecosystem – which converted waste into fertilizer, and also biogas (hydrogen, electricity). Energy development would produce C02, which, when combined with fertilizer would produce microalgae (producing Omega 3 fatty acids). This, in turn, could be fed to livestock, boosting the nutrients in the eggs, milk and meat.

Jonathan took these lessons to build the “ecology of technology” called UpCycle Systems with an aim to distribute it globally:

We see now that if Adam takes a single bite of the apple and throws the rest away, then the garden of Eden becomes a mess.  There is no “away” to throw things into. The rotting apples are accumulating everywhere. But the good news is that we know that we can use those “rotting apples” to make energy and fertilizer.  We can use the energy and fertilizer to grow really fast-growing plants to feed animals and fish. The animal/fish waste can also be used to restore soils for improving crops. And now, we can use big data, machine learning and data mining to confront the complexity of dealing with integrated UpCycling eco-systems for monitoring, performance and decision-making.  We now have the tools to help us master overwhelming complexity to create sustainable circular economies.

Other fascinating research exhibited throughout the conference illustrated tireless research to:

  • understand the human microbiome, its relationship to diseases and conditions like Sickle Cell, Cocaine addiction, aging and food allergies...
  • advance earthquake early warning systems using machine learning and sensor data to accurately measure and determine location source much faster, minimize false alerts, plus effectively deliver alerts near the epicenter. Noteworthy: these early warning systems were installed in Jordan and Palestine and Ein Geddi, disparate political states…
  • establish remote sensing systems on evaporation points along the Dead Sea to collect data on humidity, surface radiation temperature, latent heat fluxes plus soil moisture etc. and ultimately identify extreme Dead Sea atmospheric variables: aerosols (low pollution levels), high surface winds 6 months of the year, low humidity and temperature attributions unique to the region...
  • understand how animals survive the long, cold and dark extreme conditions by implanting temperature-sensitive datalog sensors into local Arctic species. Ultimately, they identified natural survival strategies during Torpor (reduced body temperature and metabolic rate) through freeze tolerance and freeze avoidance...
  • use nanotechnology to effectively release RNA nano-particles bound with antibodies to targeted “sick cells” in the fight against inflammatory diseases, while mitigating harmful side effects…
  • You can see all the presentations here.

Both Dr. Marcus-Kalish and Prof Joseph Klafter, President, Tel Aviv University, were inspired by the stimulating cross-disciplinary discussion that resulted among the researchers and attendants.

The next steps for Dr. Marcus-Kalish are already being fleshed out.

These initiatives presented at the Dead Sea serve as test beds for understanding the real impacts, but they also provide a view into how our systems can be adapted or altered to affect long-term viability. The resounding theme requires multi-disciplinary understanding from all science disciplines, water, ecology, economic and human impacts plus establishing computational decision-making frameworks for efficacy and scalability.

What I believe is we must all converge on the human being and the surroundings as one system.

As per 17-year-old Elizabeth,

Our only option is to have hope in our planet because it is all we have. We must have hope and take as much action in our day to day lives to fix the crisis, understanding our future depends on it. I have to hope that people start to see the well-being of our planet as the top priority. I will continue to have hope because, without hope for my planet, I lose hope for my children, career and well-being – which I am never going to give up on.

In the face of adversity, humans have been able to set aside differences, deeply cultural and political, to work on practical solutions. Our current generation of scientists and technologists are proving to be stewards for change. The Dead Sea Research Institute is a living experiment that will continue to usher in those changes for Elizabeth and her generation.

This article solely represents my views and in no way reflects those of Forbes. Please feel free to contact me

Hessie Jones is a seasoned digital strategist, author, tech geek and data junkie. She has spent the last 17 years on the internet in online publishing, banking, digital advertising and tech startups like Yahoo! Citi, Aegis Media, Cerebri AI, Humans for AI, Salsa AI and Rapp Collins. Hessie is the author of EVOLVE: Marketing (as we know it) is Doomed!. As a marketer, she saw things change rapidly when search and social started to change the game for advertising and decided to figure out how the new market dynamics would change corporate environments forever: in process, in culture and in mindset. She launched her own business, ArCompany which now advocates the need for business transformation through foundational understanding of AI and understanding its impacts in process, policy and jobs. ArCompany simplifies AI works with organizations to make them AI-ready.