The Surprising Solution to Mitigate Climate Change, Create More Life, and Grow the Economy
Sea levels might rise by one to two meters by the end of the century.
What if I told you there was a way to mitigate that, while creating new habitats and more life, growing the economy, and making money along the way?
Let’s call it seaflooding.
Do You Like the Mediterranean Today?
In The Zanclean Megaflood article, we saw how the Mediterranean was a series of picayunesalty lakes until the basin was flooded from the Atlantic.
After learning about this, an architect dreamed up the concept of Atlantropa in the early 20th century: damming the Strait of Gibraltarto create massive amounts of hydroelectricity, while reducing the size of the Med to replace some sea surface with land surface.
The project never materialized because:
It was extremely expensive
It would take forever
Nuclear energy promised an unending source of energy, which meant the hydro power didn’t seem worth the hassle
How do you coordinate efforts among the many countries that border the sea?
Today, we should probably add other reasons.
One is that we now know that the bottom of the Mediterranean was a hellhole when it was dry: air pressure was much higher because the ground was so far below sea level, and the temperature would have been much higher than it is today. So the new lands would not necessarily be very fertile. In fact, they would probably be more desertic.
At the same time, there would be less moisture available on today’s exposed land, making the mediterranean shores even drier than they are now.
More importantly, geoengineering the world at this scale sounds preposterous to us now. We love the Mediterranean just the way it is. We love the wildlife that thrives around it, the economic opportunities, the sun, the holidays, the lifestyle… the life.
Reverting back to a salt desert sounds foolish.
We’re very happy that the Mediterranean flooded.
Should we create more Mediterraneans then?
Create New Seas
This picture is the same as in the Messinian Salinity Crisis.
Imagine a low-lying desertic land.
It used to hold a sea because it was so low. But one day, its access to the ocean closed off. And because it was so hotand received so little water from rains and rivers, it dried up, leaving behind a wasteland of sand and salts.
Where life used to thrive, now there’s just death and desolation.
Now imagine that, one day, we open a path to the sea. After a few weeks, a lake would start to form.
Suddenly, a miracle: rain in the desert.
Because with all that heat, some of the new water evaporates, rises, cools, and drops as rain.
And then another miracle: a desert bloom.
Millions of dormant plants, yearning for a drop of water, suddenly awaken. The desert becomes vibrant with life again.
Insects grow to feed on the plants.
Birds come to feed on the insects.
As the water of the lake rises, it turns pink.
That’s because the algae, bacteria, and archaea that can survive in these conditions are pink and orange to protect against the Sun. Shrimps appear to eat these animals. This, in turn, attracts the flamingos, who feast on all these animals—and get their pink color from it.
As the water keeps pouring in, soon there’s a true lake.
But it’s still too salty for life. So we build salt evaporation ponds to extract the salt (and sell it at a profit).
Plants appear. Insects appear. Fish appear. The birds who eat the fish appear. Soon, you have a thriving ecosystem.
This ecosystem captures carbon:
The oases would absorb CO2 via phytoplankton growth —phytoplankton produce biomass faster than agriculture, reducing the necessary surface area by almost 4x.—Source.
And people follow, attracted by these new beaches, these new animals, these new opportunities.
Now our lake is not a lake anymore. It’s a sea. It’s so huge that waves form. You can’t see the other shore anymore.
Soon, infrastructure follows, to serve these communities. The drop in transportation costs makes the region more economically attractive, more viable.
And then another miracle starts happening: rains become more and more frequent. They fall around the sea and beyond, carried by the winds. Across the region, plants take root, settling the soil and preventing erosion.
Like the Mediterranean in the past, a new thriving sea has emerged to replace a burned wasteland.
Where can we do this? Turns out there are many places. And at the top of the list is one you might already know.
Flood the Dead Sea
The ancient dry Mediterranean Sea of the past and the Dead Sea of today are similar:
They both have so much salt and so little water that salt accumulates at the bottom and nothingcan survive there.
They are both far below sea level and separated from the ocean by a land barrier. This is why they’re so salty: water flows to them—and then evaporates.
They are very dry and hot places, which makes them deserts.
Since life can’t thrive in the water either, it is lifeless too.
In short, these are lifeless hellholes.
This is not a coincidence: Both the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea are on fault lines!
Fault lines like those of the Med and Dead Sea create depressions that frequently go below sea level. If that depression has access to the sea, it will eventually flood. If it doesn’t, it might become a salty inland sea if it’s wet, or a desert if it’s hot and dry.
We’re all happy the Mediterranean was close enough to the sea to get flooded. Shouldn’t we want to see the Dead Sea flooded too?
It’s not like the Dead Sea exists in a delicate environmental balance with a blossoming ecosystem and thriving communities. It’s a desert. People make money from mining the salt, there’s a tiny bit of tourism, and that’s it. And the water level keeps going down. Since 1930, the surface of the sea has shrunk by a third. The sea level is diminishing every year by one meter, as the water that used to flow into the sea is diverted for agriculture.
So why not play a Zanclean and flood it with water from the sea? It would be easy:
Build a pipeline from the Mediterranean or the Red Sea to bring the water. We know how to build pipelines.
Because it is below sea level, we could generate electricity from the flow of the sea water.
We might as well take some of that water and turn it into fresh water for irrigation.
The electricity to desalinate the water can come from the dam and, if needed, from additional solar energy, which is cheap here because there’s a lot of sun and not a lot of rain.
If we want to reduce the amount of salt, we can either expand the salt ponds or pump brackish water back into the sea.
All of this would create a much bigger sea where algae could grow, fish could feed on the algae, and birds could feed on the fish. Plants would grow on the shoreline with the added moisture, and more animals would come… It would transform a desert into a new Mediterranean.
This, of course, would not just create a thriving biological environment. It would create amazing economic opportunities for more agriculture and more tourism. These would justify more infrastructure, which would further increase the wealth of the area.
And this area sorely needs it, because it’s between Israel, Jordan, and Palestine’s West Bank. An area full of water, economic opportunities, and wildlife would be a good reason to cooperate.
I hope this makes complete sense to you, but if you think governments would never go for it… You should have more hope! Let me present to you the Red Sea – Dead Sea Water Conveyance project.
This is what the Jordanian government had in mind:
It wanted to pump water from the Red Sea through a pipeline. This would generate electricity, which would be used to desalinate some of the water into fresh drinking water for the Jordanian population.
Why am I talking in past tense? Because Jordan decided to shelve the project. Why? Apparently, it’s because they needed the cooperation of Israel, which wasn’t forthcoming.
And why might that be? Maybe it has to do with the fact that Israel has another project in mind, the Med – Dead Canal! The idea is the same, but pumping water from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, instead of from the Red Sea.
This would have the added benefit that it would likely be cheaper, as the distance to the Mediterranean is shorter.
Why wasn’t the Med-Dead project built? It’s not clear to me, but given UN opinions against it and the fact that Jordan didn’t want to depend on Israel even more than it does today, I assume no Israeli leader thought it was worth the hassle to fight the international community. It’s hard to move the status quo on international borders–especially when the international border is as sensitive as this one is.
Are there other perfect places for flooding? Deep depressions that are so hot there’s nothing there, and lie within a country’s borders entirely for an easy decision on their flooding?
Flood the Qattara Depression
The Qattara Depression is 60 to 150m below sea level.
This is in the Sahara desert. The images of desolate desert that you saw earlier on are from here. Here’s another one to refresh your memory.
This idea has so many positives that I get excited just thinking about them:
Because it’s in a depression, water concentrates there before evaporating. This means it’s not just sand, it’s salty sand. Deader than dead.
But water also brings sediments with it, so the land around the sea could be very fertile.
Because it’s closer to the equator than either the Mediterranean or the Dead Sea, it’s much hotter, so it’s one of the driest places on Earth with the least amount of life.
It’s super close to the Mediterranean, so it would not be that hard to bring water from there into the depression.
Because the depression is below sea level, it would generate electricity, which could be used to desalinate some of the sea water into freshwater.
This region would hold 1,000 km3 of water, which would reduce worldwide ocean levels by 3mm. Plus, its constant evaporation would further slow the rise of ocean levels by up to 6%.
This would reduce global warming, because the pipeline bringing water from the Mediterranean would go underground, which is cooler than the warm Mediterranean water. The underground would warm up, capturing some of the atmospheric heat.
And with such a big new sea in a hot desert, a lot of its water would evaporate. This is good, because it would increase the amount of water being pumped in—generating more electricity—and it would increase the local moisture, which could increase local rainfall.
The increase in local moisture could make it easier for plants to take hold and grow, which would reduce local erosion.
And I haven’t even started with the economic benefits: increased agriculture, tourism, and industry such as salt extraction. This would not just make Egypt richer. Agriculture is especially relevant to Egypt politically because it imports a lot of food, which strains its trade balance.
It’s dead today because it’s too salty, hot, and dry
It would be cheaper than most other places to bring seawater here
It would provide electricity, which could be used for the restof Egypt like the Aswan dam, or to generate freshwater locally
It can lower ocean levels
It can lower the atmospheric temperature
It can increase moisture in the Sahara desert
It can reduce its erosion
It would increase economic activity, including agriculture, tourism, and salt extraction
And of course, since all of this is within Egypt’s borders, no need for international talks
All of this makes it a perfect candidate for flooding.
What are the potential drawbacks? After reading this paper on the topic, I think they’re tiny. One is the loss of habitats. But the Sahara is huge, so animals can move or be moved elsewhere. And there’s not a lot of them anyways. This would create more life. The paper is also concerned about migratory birds, but they would adapt to new conditions. And my guess is a new sea is likely to be a positive for them, with more food and areas for rest.
The other riskis a leakage of saltwater into the underground freshwater aquifers. Not as much under the Qattara Sea—it’s already salty—but if the pipelines rupture. But in my humble opinion, that region is small, it’s close to the sea, and it doesn’t look like the water would travel to other areas.
From all of this, it sounds like this would be a terrific investment. If I were in the Egyptian government, I would definitely explore this.
Make New Seas Everywhere
We’ve discussed two places where seaflooding would seem to be a great idea: the Dead Sea and the Qattara Depression. But there are many more!
You can see them here on a map:
Most of them are actually in the Sahara, which sorely needs water. But there are others in Ethiopia, Australia, Argentina, and the US. And then there’s the Caspian Sea south of Russia, which is huge, shrinking, and also below sea level.
Most of these places are ancient salt lakes that dried up and are salty, devoid of much life or economic activity, and close enough to a sea that we could fill them up.
Should we do this then? Maybe it’s a bit scary because we’ve never done it before?
Actually, we have! We have a good sense of what would happen. If you’re interested, read this week’s premium article! I’ll also explore what we’ve done in the past with similar depressions, what plans exist for each of these places, and what we can expect from them in the future.
I just learned this word and it sounds super cool, so here I am sharing it with you. It means petty, insignificant, of little value.
And the Marmara Sea, and between Sicily and Africa
During the Messinian Salinity Crisis
Temperature rises by about 1ºC for every 100m drop. Something 400m deep will be 4ºC warmer. This is because heat is just excited molecules hitting you and passing you their energy. That is the feeling of heat: lots of molecules hitting you and transferring their energy to you. As you go down in the atmosphere, air accumulates due to gravity. Since there’s more of it, there’s a higher likelihood that molecules will hit you and transfer you their energy, so it feels hotter.
Only a few bacteria. Fun fact: these are special bacteria that can survive in salty water, as long as it’s not too salty. When it rains a lot in the area, water dilutes the salt content of the Dead Sea, which makes the bacteria thrive, and transforms the Dead Sea into a pink lake.
The West Bank is the West Bank… of the Jordan River.
This would require additional electricity though, which could be achieved through nuclear or photovoltaic.
It’s also on the Horse Latitudes, which means winds blowing here are very dry.
Thereby helping to combat rising sea levels
The Earths’ core is so hot it’s molten, so heating up the crust is not a problem.
The paper doesn’t go into these details, so I’m making an assumption here.
If you think the current life is more important than the replacement life, would you think that the current life in the Mediterranean is less valuable than the life existing 5 million years ago, before the Zanclean Flood?
The paper discusses another risk of algae and bacterial blooms, but I don’t think these are big issues. I’ll talk about them in the future. There’s yet another issue around the formation of gypsum, a type of mineral. But this happens every time a salty depression gets flooded—the Mediterranean is full of gypsum—and it isn’t so problematic. There might be some temporary issues like these, but none of them appear really threatening.
In short, it looks like the probability of this happening is low, and the severity if it happens is also low.
I never heard of these possibilities - and why not? This is the kind of thinking we need. Of course there will be repercussions, but it seems they are manageable with the technology today. The world is so set in how things are done that opportunities like this are overlooked.
Great piece again, thank you! Could you add a column to the table listing all depressions: By how many mm would mean sea level go down if they were filled to MSL?