April 5, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Danakil Depression


Danakil Depression

The Danakil Depression is one of Earth’s most unusual environments.

Not only is it known as the hottest place on the planet with an array of salt lakes, lava lakes, volcanoes, and colorful acidic springs, it is also the area where the remains of Lucy was found—the earliest relative of modern humans.

Let’s delve into the details of this fascinating place here on Earth.

Danakil Depression split image

Location

The Danakil Depression is the northern part of the Afar Triangle or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Landscape Photo of the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaMike Mirano, Flickr

Tectonic Plates

It is a unique and extreme geological wonder that has resulted from the separation of three tectonic plates, creating a rift valley system.

Aerial Photo of the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaThomas Fuhrmann, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Size

The Danakil Depression is a large area, spanning approximately 200 kilometers (124 miles) from north to south and 50 kilometers (31 miles) from east to west, with a total area of about 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles).

Erta Ale is an active shield volcano located in the Afar Region of northeastern Ethiopiafilippo_jean, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Temperature

The Danakil Depression is the hottest place on Earth in terms of year-round average temperatures, which can exceed 50°C (122°F) and an elevation that goes below sea level.

This makes it one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

Landscape Photo of Camels at the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaAchilli Family | Journeys, Flickr

Significance

The Danakil Depression is home to a diverse collection of geologic formations, including active volcanoes, salt flats, hot springs, and geothermal features.

Landscape Photo of the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaAchilli Family | Journeys, Flickr

Valuable Resources

The region is also rich in minerals, including salt, sulfur, and other valuable resources, which have been exploited by local communities for centuries.

People digging salt at the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaAchilli Family | Journeys, Flickr

Scientific Interest

The Danakil Depression is of great scientific interest, as it provides insights into the geologic processes and tectonic forces that shape our planet.

Landscape Photo of the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaIan Swithinbank, Flickr

Life on Other Planets

The intriguing environment is actively being investigated to help understand how life might arise on other planets and moons.

Landscape Photo of the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaIan Swithinbank, Flickr

The Region: Volcanoes

The region is characterized by active volcanism, with several active volcanoes, including Erta Ale—one of the most active lava lakes in the world.

Landscape Photo of Erta Ale a continuously active basaltic shield volcano in the Afar Region of northeastern EthiopiaPetr Meissner, Flickr

Geology: Salt Flats

Aside from volcanoes, the area also includes massive salt flats, including the Dallol Salt Flat—which is one of the lowest and hottest places on Earth.

Hydrothermal chimneys, salt pillars and terraces of DallolElectra Kotopoulou, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Appearance

What is often called its “psychedelic appearance” comes from the condensation of superheated water saturated with various salts, including silver chloride, zinc iron sulphide, manganese dioxide and normal rock-salt.

Landscape at Dallol volcano, Afar Region, Ethiopia.A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons

Geology: Hot Springs

There are also numerous colorful hot springs and geothermal features, resulting from hydrothermal activity. These are called the Dallol Sulphur springs.

Dallol Sulphur springs at the Danakil Depression or Afar DepressionRita Willaert, Flickr

Dallol Springs

The Dallol hydrothermal system is a unique, terrestrial hydrothermal system around a cinder cone volcano. It is known for its unearthly colors and mineral patters, and the very acidic fluids that come from the hot springs.

Landscape Photo of the Dallol Sulphur springs at the Danakil DepressionHervé Sthioul, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Hydrothermal System: Colors

The hydrothermal system includes yellow deposits, which are a variety of sulphates, red areas that are deposits of iron oxides, and green water which is the result of copper salts.

Dallol abstract compositionsCarsten ten Brink, Flickr

Gaet'ale Pond

Gaet'ale Pond is a small hypersaline lake located over a tectonic hot spring in the Danakil Depression. It has a salinity of 43%, making it the saltiest water body on Earth. It was created in 2005 after an earthquake, which reactivated the hot spring.

Landscape Photo of Gaet'ale Pond at the Danakil DepressionA.Savin, Wikimedia Commons

Living Things

Researchers have recently discovered ultra-small bacteria living in one of the acidic, super-hot salt chimneys. The bacteria are tiny — up to 20 times smaller than the average bacteria — but they are alive and in their own way thriving.

Lake Asale sulphur springs at the Danakil Depression or Afar DepressionIan Swithinbank, Flickr

Flora

The Danakil Depression flora primarily consists of drought-resistant plants like dragon trees and grass. Though there are about 200 species of plants in the surrounding area, of which 25 of them are endemic to the area.

Landscape Photo of the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaRita Willaert, Flickr

Birds

There are various birds that can sometimes be seen living among the Danakil Depression, including: the ostrich, the endemic Archer’s lark, the Secretary Bird, Arabian and Kori bustards, Abyssinian Roller and Crested Francolin, Egyption Vulture also known as Pheros Chicken.

Close-up Photo of a Archer's Lark bird in Liben Plains, EthiopiaNik Borrow, Flickr

Animals

One of the national parks in Ethiopia, and not far from the Danakil Depression is the Yangudi Rasa National Park, which is home to animals like the Beisa oryx, Soemmering’s gazelle, gerenuk and Grevy’s zebra.

Close-up Photo of Beisa Oryx standing near treeSteve Garvie, Flickr

People

The hot and dry climate means that few plants or animals can survive there—including people. The Dallol site itself is unpopulated, but the nomadic Afar people have settled nearby in a semi-permanent village called Hamadela.

Man Leading Camels at the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaAchilli Family | Journeys, Flickr

Surviving the Heat

The Afar are a nomadic people who rely on their herds of camels, cattle, sheep and goats to survive and frequently move around in order to find water in the dry harsh deserts.

And apparently—they weren’t the only people to survive the area.

Portrait photo of two young Afar woman in traditional clothingAchilli Family | Journeys, Flickr

The Cradle of Humanity

The area is often referred to as the cradle of humanity; in 1974 Donald Johanson and his colleagues found the famous Australopithecus afarensis fossil Lucy—one of the longest-lived and best-known early human species—which has been dated 3.2 million years old.

Landscape Photo of the Awash River a major river of EthiopiaJi-Elle, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The First Human Species

After the discovery of Lucy, many other fossils of ancient hominins had been uncovered there, prompting many palaeontologists to propose that this area is where the human species first evolved.

Landscape Photo of the Awash River a major river of EthiopiaRita Willaert, Flickr

Visiting the Danakil Depression

Even though this is known as the hottest place on Earth, and completely inhospitable, there are ways to visit. In fact, tourism is a common thing for the area.

Landscape Photo of the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaAchilli Family | Journeys, Flickr

Tourism: Heat Warning

Although tourism is a thing there, it is not exactly advised. Due to the extreme temperatures, even in the “cooler” months, the heat is said to be unbearable to most people.

Tourists at the Lake Asale in the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaIan Swithinbank, Flickr

Tourism Safety & the Locals

The Afar people who reside in the area apparently do not care for tourists coming to their homeland. However, they are desperate for tourist money. In fact, they will set up road blocks and stop tourists, refusing to let them through unless they pay them.

Tourists at the Lake Asale in the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaIan Swithinbank, Flickr

Tourism Negotiations

In some cases, tourism road blocks require extensive negotiations between the locals and the tourist guides in order to be allowed to pass through. These negotiations, even peaceful ones, can take upwards of an hour.

Photo of a Tourist at the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaIan Swithinbank, Flickr

Tourism Prior to 2018

A peace agreement between the Ethiopian government and the Afar people was reached in 2018, but before that attacks on tourists happened more often than they’d like to admit.

The locals would often kidnap, or end the lives of tourists.

Photo of a Tourist at the Lake Asale of Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaIan Swithinbank, Flickr

Health Concerns

Given the extreme heat, there are a number of people who are simply not permitted to tour the Danakil Depression. Anyone with pre-existing health concerns is not allowed to join.

Photo of a Tourists at the Lake Asale of Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaIan Swithinbank, Flickr

Guided Tours

Tours of the Danakil cost anything from $250 per person upwards, and last anywhere between 2 to 4 days. Tours will include a visit to the Erta Ale volcano, Lake Guilietti and the Dallol.

Landscape Photo of the Lake Afrera (in Italian Lake Giuletti) in Danakil DepressionIan Swithinbank, Flickr

Final Thoughts

The Danakil Depression, the hottest place on Earth, and the area where the first human species evolved, is one of the world’s most intriguing wonders. With its extreme climate conditions, tourism is possible, but not advised for all. Even still, Ethiopia is a beautiful pocket of the world that deserves recognition.

Landscape Photo of the Danakil Depression or Afar Depression in Ethiopia and EritreaIan Swithinbank, Flickr

Sources: 1, 2, 3


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