Below Sea Level: The World's 10 Lowest Points of Land
Why Are Some Places Below Sea Level?
It may sound counter-intuitive, but our planet has a number of dry patches of land which occur, unbelievably, below 0 feet—or mean sea level. The origins of these areas, 10 of which are featured below, are mostly the result of two geological and geographical phenomena.
The first is a rift valley, or an area on the surface of the Earth which is being split or rent apart, causing the ground to 'drop' and resulting in a graben. The second is merely the drying of a lake or sea. Dry climates, or deserts, are handmaidens of these two aforementioned phenomena as previously submerged areas have gradually been evaporated, leaving dry ground below sea level. In other instances, the most famous being in the Netherlands, people have reclaimed land from the sea or a lake and built protective walls around the reclaimed land, and often the areas reclaimed fall slightly below sea level.
gra·ben | \ ˈgrä-bən \
Definition of graben: a depressed segment of the crust of the earth or a celestial body (such as the moon) bounded on at least two sides by faults— Merriam-Webster
Feet Below Sea Level
Meters Below Sea Level
Lammefjord, Denmark and Zuidplaspolder, Netherlands
Lake Eyre, Australia
Salton Sea, CA, USA
Death Valley, CA, USA
Laguna del Carbon, Bajo del Gualicho, Salina Grande, and Salina Chica, Argentina
344, 236, 138, and 138
105, 72, 42, and 42
Caspian Depression, Kazakhstan
Qattara Depression, Egypt
Turpan Depression, China
Lake Assal, Djibouti
Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee, Israel, Jordan
1,388 and 702
423 and 214
10. Lammefjord, Denmark and Zuidplaspolder, Netherlands
Western Europe’s two lowest points are split between two areas in Denmark and the Netherlands, each 23 feet (7 meters) below sea level. Unlike the other areas on this page, both low points are the result of human-induced land drainage.
The polders in the Netherlands are areas that were reclaimed from the sea by the Dutch in the 13th century. The land was drained and a wall was built up around it to protect it from the sea, not unlike the natural levees that formed in the lower Mississippi River near New Orleans that left some areas around the Crescent City 5 to 7 feet below sea level.
Similar to Zuidplaspolder, Lammefjord in Denmark was reclaimed to make room for agricultural land. An arm of the Isefjord, it was finally pumped dry of water in 1943, and a dyke was constructed to keep water out.
9. Lake Eyre, Australia
Lake Eyre is the continent’s lowest point at 49 feet (15 meters) below sea level. Occasionally this basin will fill with water, temporarily turning it into Australia’s largest lake, but the occasion is very rare (only about four times each century!). Most of the time, the Lake Eyre Basin in South Australia is filled with a salt pan. Having no outlets, similar to many of the Earth’s below-sea-level basins, Lake Eyre is located in a desert and hot for most of the year. The basin floor is the remnant of an ancient lake bed.
8. Salton Sea, California, USA
The Salton Sea sits in a graben in the Southern California desert, submerging part of the otherwise exposed San Andreas rift zone between two continental plates (not unlike the Dead Sea rift zone between Israel and Jordan, the lowest spot on earth—but more about that later!).
The Salton Sea is 234 feet (71.3 meters) below sea level and is a saline lake as well as the largest lake in California. With a maximum depth of 43 feet (13 meters), the lake’s deepest point is only 5 feet higher than Death Valley’s Badwater. The lake was formed in 1905 after heavy rains swelled waters enough to overrun canals in the Imperial Valley. The excess water flowed back into the basin to the north.
Various settlements have attempted to exploit the lake recreationally with some sporadic success (fishing for Tilapia is popular, as it's the only species that can survive the levels of salinity here at 5.0% w/v.), but the Salton Sea is threatened by increasing levels of salinity and fertilizer runoff from the Imperial Valley. Still, it remains an important stop for migratory birds on the North American flyway.
7. Death Valley, California, USA
This is the lowest, driest, and hottest place in North America. The ancient lakebed that serves as the floor of this graben is 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level, and the lowest point is known as ‘Badwater.’
Death Valley, like many other deep valleys in the same region, is the result of a block of the Earth’s crust sinking as the ‘skin’ gets stretched, forming the basin and range region of the area collectively known as the Great Basin. Interestingly, there is a marker on the cliff overhead which denotes ‘Sea Level’, or zero feet. Across the salt flat is the summit of Telescope Peak, which rises to more than 11,000 feet above sea level—a huge contrast in elevations and life zones respectively.
Death Valley is within Death Valley National Park in the Mojave Desert of California and is easily accessed by roadways. Unsurprisingly, it is not often visited in the summer, because of the extreme heat.
6. Laguna del Carbon, Argentina
Within Argentina are all of the significant areas in South America that are below sea level: Laguna del Carbon, Bajo del Gualicho, Salina Grande, and Salina Chica. Among them is the lowest place in the southern and western hemisphere respectively—the Laguna del Carbon—which bottoms out at -344 feet (-105 meters.) All three areas are located in the southern provinces of Argentina.
The Laguna del Carbon, in Santa Cruz Province, is an endorheic salt lake, meaning it has no outflow or is in a closed basin.
Nearby Areas Below Sea Level:
- Bajo del Gualicho, in Rio Negro Province, is 236 feet (72 meters) below sea level.
- Best known for its wildlife, the Valdes Peninsula in Chubut Province is home to the barren Salina Grande and Salina Chica, which share a low elevation of 138 feet (42 meters) below sea level.
5. Caspian Depression, Kazakstan
The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed body of water in the world, and its shore is 92 feet (28 meters) below sea level. It sits at the bottom of the largest area in the world below sea level, straddling the borders of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. It’s a salt lake and considered endorheic, having no natural outflow.
The Caspian Depression encompasses the northern part of the Caspian sea. The deepest point of this huge depression lies in a karst trench on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan. The low point, Karigiye, is 433 feet (132 meters) below sea level.
4. Qattara Depression, Egypt
Africa is home to the largest number of places below sea level in the world, and North Africa has the most locations within the continent. The Qattara Depression in Egypt’s Libyan Desert, Africa’s second-lowest point, is a huge area covering over 7,000 square miles of land; it averages close to 200 feet (70 meters) below sea level. The maximum depth below sea level reaches -436 feet (-133 meters.)
An endorheic basin, the Qattara Depression is very dry but supports oases, of which the most famous are Siwa and Cana, both inhabited. Salt pans, dunes, and bizarre wind-eroded rocks are common in the Qattara Depression.
Other areas in North Africa below sea level include:
- Sebkha paki Tah, Morocco, (180 feet/55 meters below sea level),
- Sabkhat Ghuzayyil, Libya (-154 feet/-47 meters),
- Chott Melrhir, Algeria (-131 feet/-40 meters), and
- Shatt al Gharsah, Tunisia (-56 feet/-17 meters).
3. Turpan Depression, China
This trough is the Earth’s third-lowest point, reaching a depth of 505 feet (154 meters) below sea level. Located in China’s western desert region south of Mongolia, the Turpan Depression is the country’s hottest and driest area. Formed by a fault, this depression is huge and expansive and is surrounded by some of the tallest mountains on earth, notably the Tian Shan and Bogda Shan.
The region has a storied history and the ruins found throughout the basin are attributed to the Silk Road route that ran through here 2,000 years ago. A crossroads of cultures, some of the historic and archeological sites in the region include the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, the Gaochang Ruins, and the Astana-Karakhoja ancient tombs.
2. Lake Assal, Djibouti
Lake Assal is at the bottom of a crater lake which lies 509 feet (155 meters) below sea level, making it the second-lowest point on earth after the Dead Sea rift zone. The larger region, known as the Afar Depression, extends into Ethiopia where the Danakil Depression has a low elevation of 410 feet below sea level (-125 meters.) National Geographic described it as the “cruelest place on earth.”
The area is at the northern reaches of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, which is an elongated rift valley where two plates are splitting apart. Lake Assal is the lowest point of land in Africa, and it is marked by extremely high temperatures, volcanic landscapes, and desert—typical of most the Earth’s low points.
1. Dead Sea, Israel
The Dead Sea is the world’s lowest point of land at 1,388 feet below sea level (-423 meters), more than twice as deep as the remaining areas below sea level. Sitting between Israel and Jordan, the Dead Sea is incredibly saline, at 33.7%, and mostly devoid of life.
Honorable Mention: Sea of Galilee, Jordan
Connected by the Jordan River 50 miles to the north, the Sea of Galilee—also called Lake of Gennesaret, Kinneret, and Lake Tiberias—is the world’s lowest freshwater lake at 702 feet (214 meters) below sea level, making it the second-lowest point on the Earth’s surface.
While the Dead Sea is considered a hypersaline, endorheic body of water, the Sea of Galilee has both an inflow and outflow provided by the Jordan River. The two bodies of water can hardly be more of a contrast. Occupying the Jordan Rift Valley, the Dead Sea is a stark, forbidding landscape seemingly barren of life, whereas the Sea of Galilee, true to its biblical roots, is life-giving, with leafy shores now occupied by dozens of resort hotels which sit adjacent to fertile groves of fruit orchards.
The area’s historical significance requires no special explanation, as both lakes are located at arguably the world’s crossroads of history and civilization.
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© 2012 jvhirniak