Satellite images show the Dead Sea shrink from 1972 to 2011. (Photos: NASA)

The Dead Sea earned its name not from death exactly, but from a relative lack of life. That's because, as a hypersaline lake, its water is far too salty for most wildlife to live there full-time (aside from recently discovered microbes on its seafloor).

But as the satellite images above illustrate, the Dead Sea itself has been gradually dying for decades. The trio of false-color images were taken at three points over the past 40 years — 1972, 1989 and 2011 — and reveal a dramatic transformation.

That's not surprising, according to research released by the environmentalist group EcoPeace Middle East. The group's data says the Dead Sea has already lost more than one-third of its surface area and is shrinking at a rate of about 3.3 feet per year.

The shrinking is evident in the images above. Captured by NASA's Landsat satellites, these images show deep waters as dark blue and shallow waters as bright blue, while pink and tan represent barren desert, green indicates sparse vegetation, and red indicates dense vegetation. Near the center is the Lisan Peninsula, which now forms a land bridge across the Dead Sea.

So why is the Dead Sea becoming smaller and shallower? Largely because of water diversions from the Jordan River, which flows into the Dead Sea from the north. But as NASA explains, intensive salt-gathering projects are also encroaching from the south — and they're especially obvious in these photos. According to NASA:

"The ancient Egyptians used salts from the Dead Sea for mummification, fertilizers, and potash (a potassium-based salt). In the modern age, sodium chloride and potassium salts culled from the sea are used for water conditioning, road de-icing, and the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics. The expansion of massive salt evaporation projects are clearly visible over the span of 39 years."

The Dead Sea is part of a depression in the Earth's crust between Africa and Asia, found on a rift where the two continents are pulling apart. It's the lowest surface feature anywhere on Earth, with shores located 1,300 feet below sea level. And thanks to its extreme saltiness, it's also known for its buoyancy: Delighted tourists float on its surface with ease, while frustrated divers struggle to explore its depths.

In 2015, Jordan and Israel agreed to a $900 million deal that would, among other things, help save the Dead Sea, reported Reuters. The plan includes building a desalination plant and a pipeline linking the Red Sea with the Dead Sea. The water from the plant will supply water to both nations and the pipeline will pump a much-needed 300 million cubic meters annually of Red Sea water to the Dead Sea.

But the Dead Sea itself isn't the only regional treasure undergoing rehab. The Dead Sea Scrolls — a series of 972 biblical texts discovered around the sea between 1947 and 1956 — are being reanalyzed by facial-recognition software, which may help scholars better understand the scrolls' significance. And in the meantime, you can study them for yourself, thanks to a joint project by Google and the Israel Museum that recently digitized some of the scrolls and put them online.

[Via EarthSky, NASA]

Editor's note: This story was originally published in April 2012 and has been updated with new information.

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

NASA photos show Dead Sea dying
Thanks to massive water-diversion and salt-evaporation projects, satellite images show how the Dead Sea is gradually living up to its name.