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The air at the Dead Sea
January 4, 2014 10:19 AM   Subscribe

It's my understanding that the atmosphere at the Dead Sea has a higher concentration of oxygen than the sea level norm because of the extremely low elevation (roughly a quarter mile below sea level). My question is: what does it feel like to breathe this air? Is it refreshing? Does it feel thicker than air at sea level? Are there any objective medical findings associated with long-term exposure to oxygen at this concentration? Many thanks in advance.
posted by jason's_planet to Health & Fitness (20 answers total)
When I went there I didn't know this, and I've not noticed anything different about the air or about breathing it. Sorry if this disappoints you!
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:28 AM on January 4

To me it didn't seem any different from the air anywhere else. (And I tend to have breathing issues, so I would think I'd possibly be more sensitive to changes in air than most other people.) I don't recall anyone in the fairly large group I was there with saying anything about the air, either. Sorry!
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:31 AM on January 4

I don't think that the air has a higher concentration of oxygen, by the way. It has a higher concentration of air. It's "thicker", not just richer in oxygen. But it's not something you notice.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:34 AM on January 4 [3 favorites]

1. I don't know that the elevation is enough to make a difference, because I'll routinely hike up local mountains that are over 1000 feet in elevation and not notice any difference at the top. I don't think going the other way would change much.

2. I think you'd probably want to research the relative densities of the gasses composing air before determining that denser air necessarily equals more oxygen. For instance, carbon dioxide is significantly heavier than air in general, so maybe the Dead Sea area actually has worse atmospheric qualities than elsewhere because CO2 pools there (note: not saying this actually happens).
posted by LionIndex at 10:48 AM on January 4

The difference between sea level and the Dead Sea shore is about the same as the difference between sea level and 1500 feet altitude.

I suppose you might notice a difference if you brought a treadmill with you and did some endurance tests, but for normal activities, there's no significant difference.

A few hundred years ago, when it was discovered that the atmosphere thins out and has a top, this stunned people - until it was shown scientifically, nobody had ever really noticed that air up in the mountains is thinner than air down below.
posted by Hatashran at 11:22 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]

I visited the Dead Sea in July several years ago. It could have been the season, but I found the air to be muggy, weird, and disgusting. It almost felt coated in something. And then you would go in the water, which was likewise tepid, oily, and so salty that it burned your genitals. The whole place felt like a wasteland, despite the touted health benefits of visiting and soaking in the water there.

Your Dead Sea experience may vary.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:28 AM on January 4 [3 favorites]

I live about as far above sea level as the Dead Sea is below and worked for years at an elevation relative to my home of twice as much change (IE: I live ~1/4 of a mile above sea level and used to work ~3/4 mile above sea level). I have never noticed a difference in air feel or ease of breathing when either descending to sea level or ascending to 3/4 of a mile above.
posted by Mitheral at 12:06 PM on January 4

I've been to the Dead Sea many, many times, and more often than not it was really muggy - it could be really quite oppressive in the summer months when it was hot as well (at least where I was going, on the Jordan side.)

There is a curious microclimate there though, that I would imagine is somewhat due to the elevation or at least how it relates to the surrounding landscape. It's generally very warm in the area (shorts weather), even when the temperatures are low (ie. below 10C) in the surrounding areas. I can't ever remember it being too cold to go in the water. It's worth noting that while the Dead Sea is well below sea level, the lands lying along the length of it to the east and west (but especially to the east) are well above sea level, - in some spots rising to above 1,000m above sea level over a relatively short distance.
posted by scrute at 12:14 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

There's about 4.5 % more oxygen in the air at the surface of the Dead Sea. It's about the same change in oxygen content as you would see when ambient temperature went from 68F to 50F.

Personally, I have noticed the difference between 6500 feet and sea level, in terms of aerobic performance, and that's about a 21% difference. Likewise, I notice (now) the 21% reduction in available oxygen when I visit my hometown.

Like Hatashran said, I doubt that you'd notice the difference if you were acclimatized to sea level. I'm pretty sure that anyone will notice a 21% difference, but I don't know what the threshhold is for the minimum perceptable difference.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:14 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

I usually live at sea level and am visiting the Denver area, 1 mi. above sea level. My heart and lungs and general level of energy took a week or so to acclimate at all, and are still not 100%. When I visited here before for 10 days and went home to sea level, I felt pretty good for a week or so. Could easily have been suggestibility, though there's ample anecdata to support it.
posted by theora55 at 12:38 PM on January 4

I was there in December about a decade ago, and didn't notice any difference in the air. Sorry.
posted by guster4lovers at 2:09 PM on January 4

By volume, the air below sea level will contain more oxygen molecules. This is because the air will be denser at lower elevation. This higher density means the gas molecules in air will be closer together--so more of them in a given volume. But the percentage of oxygen in that volume will not be any different. The atmosphere is about 21% oxygen, and that won't change if you squeeze the molecules closer together or move them further apart. So when you breath at lower elevation, you breath in more gas molecules in total (both oxygen and nitrogen) but the % oxygen is still the same. This is what people mean by "thicker" or "thinner" air.

I have been to Death Valley many times which is below sea level and I have never noticed or felt the difference. But people do have very different physical responses to elevation. So I suppose some folks might feel the thicker air below sea level more than others.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 2:51 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]

A quarter mile of elevation difference is not really noticeable, above or below sea level, as far as the density of air. In most locations, the temperature difference is the most obvious. That elevation difference is about the same as the rim of the Grand Canyon (about 7,000 feet above MSL) and the level of the Colorado river (maybe 1,200 feet lower) and the temperature difference in summer is often 30 degrees or so.
posted by yclipse at 2:53 PM on January 4

I went there in 07. I didn't notice any difference in how I felt. I have heard that it is harder to sunburn there because of the thick air. I was there in December, wasn't outside for long, and don't sunburn easily, so I didn't get to test that claim in any meaningful way.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:14 PM on January 4

It may be marginally harder to sunburn there than in an equivalently hot place (I've heard this claim many times) but it's not hard. I've seen tourists hospitalized who fell asleep in the sun in (similarly situated) Eilat.

I've never noticed the air feeling different than anywhere else there. The water (what's left of it) is the unusual feature.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:04 PM on January 4

When I was there (granted, many, many years ago), I didn't notice anything different about the air. The water, yes. Air, no.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:53 PM on January 4

Eilat is about 40 feet above sea level. Not really similar to 1400 feet below sea level.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:54 AM on January 5

The Dead Sea stinks to high heaven. You go there once in a lifetime to have the experience.
posted by KRS at 7:45 AM on January 5

Analogous and second-hand but my when my wife and I visited the Salton Sea area a few years ago she was half-serious about wanting to move there despite the obvious decay and ick and lack of any appreciable opportunity for employment precisely because she could breathe better there than anywhere else she'd been. Of course, she has a chronic lung condition and functions on about 33% of the oxygen you or I do. I didn't notice anything different myself however.
posted by Fezboy! at 8:02 AM on January 5

OK, so there really isn't a significant difference in the air at the Dead Sea. Not one that would be obvious in everyday life.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by jason's_planet at 5:52 PM on January 5

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