March 31, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Dead Sea Salt Cave Is Longest of Its Kind

Cave explorers have determined that a passageway inside a mountain of salt in Israel is the longest salt cave in the world.

Salt caves are very different from limestone caves, even though they can have stalactites and similar features. They grow by different mechanisms and cannot last long. At Fox News, science reporter James Rogers writes, “World’s longest salt cave discovered in Israel and is still ‘growing,’ scientists say.”

Mt Sedom (Har Sodom) on the southwest Dead Sea, is almost pure salt. See cave opening. (Photos by David Coppedge, 2006)

The Malham Cave in Mount Sedom, also known as Mount Sodom, is 6.2 miles long, surpassing Iran’s Cave of the Three Nudes, which is almost 4.1-miles in length. A team led by Hebrew University’s Cave Research Center, the Israel Cave Explorers Club and Bulgaria’s Sofia Speleo Club, as well as 80 cavers from nine countries, has successfully mapped the Malham Cave.

Skylight in Har Sodom (Mt Sodom), probably part of the same cave system described in the news articles.

Mount Sedom (Sodom) rises along the southwestern tip of the Dead Sea. The whole mountain is composed of table salt, the kind sprinkled on food. At Live Science, Rafi Letzter reproduced some photos from the expedition, including a tall skylight in one room, and thin stalactites in other places. Ilan Ben Zion’s story in the Associated Press shows the entrance to the cave. The article explains why salt caves are young:

This is probably the pillar whimsically named “Lot’s Wife.”

Salt caves are unusual and rare geological features. Because salt is highly water soluble, large salt deposits do not normally survive long on the surface. Only a handful of salt caves are larger than a kilometer (half a mile) in length. Salt caves tend to only exist in highly arid regions, like the area around the Dead Sea, which is located at the lowest point on earth and is too salty to support animal life.

The Dead Sea and Mount Sodom were formed by tectonic activity, the shifting of the Earth’s plates at the northern end of the 6,000-kilometer (4,000-mile) Afro-Arabian Rift Valley. Over millions of years, successive flooding of the deep depression lay down thick layers of salt.

“The salt layers are squeezed out from the sub-surface, where they are deposited a few kilometers underground, and while being squeezed out they form a mountain, which is rising still today, at a rate of about one centimeter per year,” said Amos Frumkin, a Hebrew University geologist who has studied the cave for decades.

The Malham Cave’s main outlet yawns not far from a salt pillar named “Lot’s wife,” after the biblical character who was petrified for looking back at the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

It’s highly unlikely that this mountain has anything to do with Lot’s wife as described in the Biblical account of Genesis 19. The cities of the plain were in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, but probably miles away. Locals who knew the story probably ascribed the name to a prominent pillar on the mountain. If it’s the one shown in the photo, it is much larger than a person. What’s interesting, though, is the disparity between “millions of years” for the salt layers to form, and mere thousands of years for the mountain and the cave to form.

Radiocarbon dating of wood fragments found inside the cave have helped date its formation to around 7,000 years ago, making it extremely young by speleological standards.

“The reason why it’s so young is because it’s made of salt,” Frumkin explained. “Limestone caves are much slower to form. They are usually much older. But this one is developing very fast so it’s one of the youngest caves in the world.”

Cavers describe the formations as glittering white and splendid: ““All the stalagmites and stalactites, their beauty, their color — they’re really white, they’re shining, they’re amazing.”

Errors in radiocarbon assumptions could link the salt to the events in Genesis 19, but that’s not necessary to explain the mountain or the cave. If it really took millions of years, why are we humans lucky to see it during a fraction of that time?

Tourists exploring the skylight room in the cave inside Har Sodom.

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