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Tuesday, January 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scientists: Dead Sea has sunk to a new low

The Associated Press

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LOS ANGELES — The Dead Sea, already the lowest point on Earth, is sinking even lower.

Areas along the shores of the Dead Sea subsided by as much as 2.5 inches a year between 1992 and 1999, according to a new study. The region on the Israeli-Jordanian border lies about 1,360 feet below sea level.

The subsidence followed a drop in the water table around the Dead Sea, allowing the ground to settle and compact, according to scientists who published their findings in this month's issue of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

Water that would normally flow into the Dead Sea has steadily been siphoned off for agricultural and other uses in the region. As a consequence, the level of the body of water, which is among the world's saltiest, has fallen by about 20 feet over the past decade.

The study used seven years of data from a pair of European radar satellites to examine changes in the level of the ground along the southern and western shores of the Dead Sea.

The subsidence may be related, but only circumstantially, to gigantic sinkholes that have begun to appear along the shores of the Dead Sea, scientists said.

As the salt water of the Dead Sea recedes, in some cases by hundreds of yards, fresh ground water replaces it. That water then dissolves buried salt deposits, causing the ground to collapse and threatening the stability of resort hotels. The area is a popular tourist destination.

Scientists believe a different mechanism explains the larger-scale subsidence. They suspect that when the water table drops, the matrix of soils, sands and gravels that held the water collapses behind it.

Gerald Bawden, a research geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey who was not connected with the study, said the drop was not unusual given the dramatic drawdown of the water table.

In a paper published in August in the journal Nature, Bawden reported that the pumping and recharging of ground water in the Los Angeles basin causes the ground to rise and fall by as much as 4 inches a year over an area 25 miles across.

Other studies have shown similar effects in Phoenix and Las Vegas as ground water is removed and replaced.

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