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Was the Mediterranean Sea Ever Dry?

Studies suggest the Mediterranean Sea might have once been partially dry.
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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
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  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2014
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It does appear that, at some point in the recent geologic past, the Mediterranean Sea may have been at least partially dry. A study conducted in the 1960s found a layer of minerals in the seafloor that could only have been created by the evaporation of water.

In 1961, seismic surveys were carried out on the Mediterranean basin that found a geological feature 330 to 660 feet (100 to 200 meters) beneath the Mediterranean seafloor, dubbed the M reflector. In 1968, the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) began, supported by Texas A&M University, and while bringing up rock cores from the sea floor, the research vessel Glomar Challenger discovered a layer of evaporites up to 1.86 miles (3 kilometers) thick. These minerals, including anhydrite, gypsum, rock salt, and arroyo gravel, are evidence that the body of water had partially or entirely evaporated in the recent geologic past, during Miocene times, about 5.9 million years ago. This event was thereafter called the "Messinian Salinity Crisis," named after Messinian evaporite discovered on the island of Sicily.

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Scientists later pieced together the evidence and determined what happened in the Mediterranean Sea at that time. The Strait of Gibraltar has closed on a cyclic basis at least several times over a 700,000 year period. The layer of evaporites was far too thick to be deposited in a single event, which suggests that the water in the Mediterranean evaporated repeatedly. Even today, the water is evaporating faster than it is being replenished, due to a lack of large glaciated mountains as a water source and its relative disconnection to the world sea. If these waterways were shut off, the sea would evaporate dry in only a thousand years.

Although some parts of the Mediterranean are as much as 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) deep, comparable to the deep ocean, the Strait of Gibraltar's depth is about 1,000 feet (300 meters), still very deep, but possibly changeable. Around 5.9 million years ago, the Eurasian and African tectonic plates would have been closer together, and the strait was likely shallower. As water froze into glaciers, it may have been taken water from the world's oceans and lowered the sea level enough to close off the strait. Deeper changes to the underlying crust from tectonic forces may have been at play, such as by changing overall rock density.

The dry Mediterranean basin would have been a lifeless and hot place due to the high salinity and areas of the geography as much as 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) below sea level. By comparison, the lowest point on land today, the shore of the Dead Sea, is just 1,371 feet (418 meters) below sea level. At the level of the Mediterranean, there would be 1.7 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. This means a wind blowing there would be 57°F to 85°F (32°C to 47°C) hotter there than at sea level, which may have been scorching. The evaporites covering the entire basin would preclude the presence of any plant or animal life, so the area would have been one of the harshest deserts on Earth.

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anon970523
Post 9

This was 5 milion years ago. Long before Noah and any homo species.

SteamLouis
Post 6

I've read about Mediterranean sea facts and the salt deposits that were discovered. But there are several theories out there about how this came to be.

One theory I've heard is that the Mediterranean might have had under-water volcanic activity in the past which could have caused the salt-deposits. If this is true, it might have never dried up in the first place. There is another theory which links this research to the flood of the time of Noah.

I'm not sure which is closer to the truth, it's definitely vague as of right now.

ysmina
Post 5

Does this mean that Europe and North Africa were connected at one point and people actually lived where the Mediterranean sea is now?

Or could people just walk from Italy to Libya?

burcidi
Post 4

I would like to chime in on this because I live on the Mediterranean sea in Turkey. I have no idea about the scientific data on the evaporation of the sea but I swim in the Mediterranean every year. So I know that every year, the sea water seems a bit more saltier than the year before. I think that's a major sign of evaporation.

I sure hope that the Mediterranean doesn't become dry any time soon because right now the climate is wonderful and there is lots of produce growing here. The Mediterranean region of Turkey is the major producer of bananas and strawberries which is exported to other countries as well.

If the weather was to become hotter and drier and if produce could no longer be grown here, the local people would lose their livelihood completely. They would have to move inland in order to farm. So I'm hoping that history doesn't repeat itself, at least not anytime soon.

Georgesplane
Post 3

@Chicada- if you want to know what the Mediterranean Sea would look like without any water, you should take a trip to the Dead Sea in Jordan or Israel. The Dead Sea has been evaporating faster than it is being replenished for decades.

Much of what the article described about the Mediterranean Sea is very similar to what happened to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea has almost completely dried up on the south end, causing large amounts of damage to the ecosystem and local economies. The land cannot grow crops, and this is causing desertification of the reason at an astounding rate. The only thing that remains of the Southern Part of the Dead Sea is massive evaporation ponds to supply salts to the spas of the worlds.

If the Mediterranean dried up now, it would cause ruin throughout most of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The Mediterranean Sea Climate would be much different from the temperate and agriculturally productive region of the world it is today.

istria
Post 2

@chicada- I was just looking at a map of the Mediterranean Sea and from what I can tell, the sea connects to other bodies of water through the Bosporus strait, the Suez Canal, and the Strait of Gibraltar. I am not sure how much good the other inlets do for the Mediterranean Sea because the Bosporus strait leads to the Black Sea (another inland sea), and the Suez Canal flow is heavily regulated through its system of locks.

The article stated that the Mediterranean is mostly losing water because the glaciers that replenish the water are smaller or have disappeared. The Strait of Gibraltar could very well be closing up, but it would take hundreds of thousands of years for this to happen, so it probably would have little effect on the level of the Mediterranean.

chicada
Post 1

I could not imagine a desert that had winds blowing some 60 to 80 degrees hotter than at sea level. This would mean that wind temperatures would be somewhere in the order of 100-180 degrees depending on the season. It would make the landscape almost impossible to explore. It would also be very tiring to explore the deepest parts of this desert with such a high atmospheric pressure. Your body would seem like it was so much heavier.

What I really want to know is why the Mediterranean Sea is evaporating so fast. Is the strait of Gibraltar the only outlet to the sea? Is it closing, or is sediment building up that is blocking the strait? At least it is not at risk of drying up any time soon so there is still a chance for me to cruise the Mediterranean.

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