Israelis to blow up Dead Sea in earthquake test

A HUGE bomb is due to be detonated in the Dead Sea tomorrow to try to simulate an earthquake. The plan has alarmed environmentalists and divided Israeli government departments.

A total of 5,000kg of dynamite is scheduled to blow up in the middle of the sea, whose shores are highly popular with tourists and are overlooked by nature reserves and biblical ruins.

The detonation, between 70 metres and 100 metres beneath the surface and at least three miles offshore, is part of an effort by the Israel Geophysical Institute to improve its seismic monitoring system.

The institute has already conducted at least one smaller explosion of 500kg this week, and was yesterday due to conduct another of 2,000kg. It says its analyses show the simulated quake will be no risk to people, property or environment. As a precaution, however, tourists were ordered out of the water before the first explosion on Monday.

But that has failed to convince Israel's environmentalists, including Bilha Givon, head of an organisation for the protection of the Negev Desert, who fear the blasts could trigger a natural earthquake.

"I am very concerned," Mrs Givon said yesterday. "If you want to simulate an aircraft accident, you don't blow up the plane. This is a very seismically sensitive area." Similar concerns have been expressed by Greenpeace.

Criticism has also come from Israel's Environmental Ministry, which has expressed fears that the explosion could release radon gas from the sea, damage the shorelines and harm wildlife. A spokesman said the ministry would seek to delay Thursday's detonation if the earlier explosions were found to be damaging.

Although the sea is lifeless - its lack of fish is the reason why it was chosen - the surrounding canyons are rich in natural life, caves and ancient ruins. They include at least two nature reserves. Aptly perhaps, the area is also traditionally believed to include the site of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities destroyed by the Old Testament God, using fire and brimstone.

However, the Geophysical Institute, which has been told by Israel's National Infrastructure Ministry to find ways to reduce earthquake risk, is adamant that the contrived earthquake will not trigger a natural one.

The explosion will be "completely safe", said Avi Shapira, head of the institute's seismology department. "This is the only way to calibrate seismological instruments accurately. It will greatly improve our ability to find the locations of earthquakes in the region."