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Who pulled the plug on the Mediterranean? And could it happen again?

By Douglas MclInnis
Cannes. Monte Carlo. St Tropez. Magic names all. And much of the enchantment comes from the deep blue water that laps their shores. But what if somebody pulled the plug? Suppose the Mediterranean Sea were to vanish, leaving behind an expanse of salt desert the size of India. Hard to imagine? It happened.
'It would have looked like Death Valley,' says Bill Ryan, from the Lamont-Doherty Earth io Observatory in New York, one of the leaders of the team that discovered the Mediterranean had once dried up, then refilled in a deluge of Biblical proportions. Between five and six million years ago, the great desiccation touched off what scientists call the Messinian Salinity Crisis - a global chemical imbalance that triggered a wrenching series of extinctions and plunged the Earth into an ice age.
The first indications of some extraordinary past events came in the 1960s, when geologists discovered that major rivers flowing into the Mediterranean had eroded deep canyons in the rock at the bottom of the sea. River erosion of bedrock cannot occur below sea level, yet somehow the River Rhone in the South of France had managed to create a channel 1000 metres deep in the sea floor, while the Nile had cut nearly 1500 metres into the rock off the North African coast. There was more: despite the fact that the formation of caves can only take place above water, scientists discovered a whole network beneath the island of Malta that reached an astonishing depth of 2000 metres below sea level.
Further evidence came to light in 1970, when an international team chugged across the Mediterranean in a drilling ship to study the sea floor near the Spanish island of Majorca. Strange things started turning up in core samples: layers of microscopic plants and soil sandwiched between beds of salt more than two kilometres below today's sea level. The plants had grown in sunlight. Also discovered inside the rock were fossilized shallow-water shellfish, together with salt and silt: particles of sand and mud that had once been carried by river water. Could the sea floor once have been near a shoreline?
That question led Ryan and his fellow team leader, Kenneth Hsu, to piece together a staggering chain of events. About 5.8 million years ago, they concluded, the Mediterranean was gradually cut off so from the Atlantic Ocean when continental drift pinned Morocco against Spain. As the opening became both narrower and shallower, the deep outward flow from sea to ocean was progressively cut off, leaving only the shallow inward flow of ocean water into the Mediterranean. As this water evaporated, the sea became more saline and creatures that couldn't handle the rising salt content perished. 'The sea's interior was dead as a door nail, except for bacteria/ says Ryan. When the shallow opening at Gibraltar finally closed completely, the Mediterranean, with only rivers to feed it, dried up and died.
Meanwhile, the evaporated water was falling back to Earth as rain. When the fresh water reached the oceans, it made them less saline. With less salt in it to act as an antifreeze, parts of the ocean that would not normally freeze began to turn to ice. 'The ice reflects sunlight into space,' says Ryan. 'The planet cools. You drive yourself into an ice age.'
Eventually, a small breach in the Gibraltar dam sent the process into reverse. Ocean water cut a tiny channel to the Mediterranean. As the gap enlarged, the water flowed faster and faster, until the torrent ripped through the emerging Straits of Gibraltar at more than 100 knots. 'The Gibraltar Falls were 100 times bigger than Victoria Falls and a thousand times grander than Niagara, Hsu wrote in his book The Mediterranean was a Desert (Princeton University Press, 1983).
In the end the rising waters of the vast inland sea drowned the falls and warm water began to escape to the Atlantic, reheating the oceans and the planet. The salinity crisis ended about 5.4 million years ago. It had lasted roughly 400,000 years.
Subsequent drilling expeditions have added a few wrinkles to Ryan and Hsu's scenario. For example, researchers have found salt deposits more than two kilometres thick - so thick, some believe, that the Mediterranean must have dried up and 90 refilled many times. But those are just geological details. For tourists the crucial question is, could it happen again? Should Malaga start stockpiling dynamite?
Not yet, says Ryan. If continental drift does reseal the Mediterranean, it won't be for several million years. 'Some future creatures may face the issue of how to respond to nature's closure. It's not something our species has to worry about.' 

 Complete each of the following statements with the best ending. 

1. The extra ice did not absorb the heat from the sun, so ................
A. all the ice on earth melted.
B. the sea was cut off from the ocean.
C. all the fish and plant life in the Mediterranean died.
D. Africa and Europe crashed into each other.
E. water started flowing from the Mediterranean.
F. the Earth started to become colder.
G. the channel grew bigger, creating the waterfalls.

2. The speed of the water from the Atlantic increased as ................
A. all the fish and plant life in the Mediterranean died.
B. the sea was cut off from the ocean.
C. the Earth started to become colder.
D. the channel grew bigger, creating the waterfalls.
E. Africa and Europe crashed into each other.
F. water started flowing from the Mediterranean.
G. all the ice on earth melted.

3. The Earth and its oceans became warmer when ................
A. all the fish and plant life in the Mediterranean died.
B. the sea was cut off from the ocean.
C. the channel grew bigger, creating the waterfalls.
D. all the ice on earth melted.
E. water started flowing from the Mediterranean.
F. Africa and Europe crashed into each other.
G. the Earth started to become colder.

 Choose the correct answer.

1. What, according to Ryan and Hsu, happened about 5.8 million years ago?
A. The water level of the Atlantic Ocean gradually fell.
B. Water stopped flowing from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
C. Movement of the continents suddenly closed the Straits of Gibraltar.
D. The flow of water into the Mediterranean was immediately cut off.

2. Why did most of the animal and plant life in the Mediterranean die?
A. There was such a lot of bacteria in the water.
B. The sea became a desert
C. The rivers did not provide salt water.
D. The water became too salty.

3. According to the text, the events at Gibraltar led to ................
A. a lack of salt in the oceans that continues to this day.
B. the beginning and the end of an ice age.
C. a permanent cooling of the Earth.
D. the formation of waterfalls elsewhere in the world.

4. More recent studies show that ................
A. the Mediterranean was never cut off from the Atlantic.
B. Ryan and Hsu s theory was correct in every detail.
C. it might once have been a freshwater lake.
D. it may have been cut off more than once.

5. At the end of the article, Ryan suggests that ................
A. the Mediterranean is certain to dry up again one day.
B. humans will have the technology to prevent it drying up again.
C. the Mediterranean will never dry up again.
D. humans will never see the Mediterranean dry up.

 Complete the summary below. Choose NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS from the passage for each answer.


The 1960s discovery of (1)………  in the bedrock of the Mediterranean, as well as deep caves beneath Malta, suggested something strange had happened in the region, as these features must have been formed (2) ……… sea level. Subsequent examination of the (3) ……… off Majorca provided more proof. Rock samples from 2000 metres down contained both vegetation and (4) ……… that could not have lived in deep water, as well as (5) ……… originally transported by river. 

sea floor silt/ sand and mud shellfish above deep canyons/ canyons


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