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The Mediterranean Desert

When sea level fell below the level of the Straits of Gibraltar around six million years ago, the western seawater passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea closed, and water ceased to flow through this passage. At about the same time, northward-moving Arabia closed the eastern ocean passage out of the Mediterranean Sea and the completely landlocked ocean basin began to dry up. Not once, but perhaps as many as 30 times, all the water in the ancestral Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian seas completely evaporated, leaving a thick crust of crystallized sea minerals such as gypsum, sylvite, and halite (salt). It must have been a lifeless place, filled with dense, hot air like modern below-sea-level deserts such as Death Valley and the coast of the Dead Sea. The rivers of Europe, Asia, and Africa carved deep valleys in their respective continental slopes as they dropped down to disappear into the burning salt wasteland.

Many times, too, the entire basin flooded with water. A rise in global sea level would lift water from the Atlantic Ocean over the barrier mountains at Gibraltar. Then the waters of the Atlantic Ocean would cascade 2.4 mi (4 km) down the mountainside into the western Mediterranean basin. From Gibraltar to central Asia, the bone-dry basin filled catastrophically in a geological instant—a few hundred years. This "instant ocean" laid deep-sea sediment directly on top of the layers of salt. The widespread extent and repetition of this series of salt and deep-sea sediment layers is the basis for the theory of numerous catastrophic floods in the Mediterranean basin.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEurope - Forces That Made Europe, The Mediterranean Desert - Miscellaneous regions and events