Danakil Depression

As one of the hottest and most exotic environments on Earth, the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia is helping to redefine the conditions for life on our own planet and beyond.

Where is it?

The Danakil Depression is in north-eastern Ethiopia, near the border with Eritrea. It sits around 125m below sea level and is at the junction of three of the Earth’s lithospheric plates (Arabian, Nubian and Somalian). These plates are regions of Earth’s crust and upper mantle about 100 km thick that move across the fluid mantle of molten rock underneath. The plates are moving apart and have created a triangular feature, called the Afar Depression, of which the Danakil Depression is the northern tip and one of the deepest features. Average temperatures are thought to be 34.4 degrees Celsius and can reach more than 48 degrees Celsius, making it a candidate for the hottest place on Earth.

Until recently, the area could only be reached after a 2 day trek. Now, new roads mean that the site can be accessed in just a few hours.

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Blocks of salt mined in the Danakil Depression are transported to town by camel and donkey. Credit: Barbara Cavalazzi/U. Bologna

Why is it interesting?

Danakil has a large number of extreme environments that form an intricate complex geological and biological setting with volcanoes, hydrothermal systems, salt flats and deposits, and extreme microbial communities. Europlanet 2020 RI, together with partners including Mekelle University and the University of Bologna, is preparing the site as a planetary analogue for access by the wider scientific community. This characterisation process includes the regional geology, geomorphology and geochemical composition, different metabolic environments in which bacterial populations could have become isolated, and the extraction of DNA from bacteria found at the site, to develop a metabolic model for the system. Scientists and geologists will be able to apply for funding from Europlanet to visit the Danakil Depression from March 2017 onwards.

Find out more about the Danakil site in this presentation by Prof Barbara Cavalazzi.

Outreach and Education linked to Danakil

Dr Barbara Cavalazzi is Assistant Professor at the Department of Biological, Geological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Bologna and visiting senior lecturer at the Department of Geology, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Barbara has conducted research in many different areas of geobiology and astrobiology, and has organised field campaigns in Africa, north and south America, Australia, Europe.

Barbara first visited the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia in 2013 and, for Europlanet 2020 RI, she has been characterising the site as a planetary analogue for astrobiology studies, as well as for Venus and the early-Earth. In addition to her research, she has been very active in outreach and education related to the site.

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Students at a private school in Tigray State, Ethiopia. Credit: B. Cavalazzi

In October and November 2016, Barbara spent a month visiting schools in Ethiopia to find out more about the education system. Hear more about her experiences in this webinar. Together with Karen Olsson-Francis, she has followed this up by organising a teachers’ workshop in November 2018.

Read more about Barbara’s outreach activities in our “Spotlight on outreach” feature.

PhysisArt – Photography of Danakil Exhibition

The artist, Samantha Tistoni, who accompanied Europlanet researchers for a field trip to Danakil in January 2017, in collaboration with Barbara Cavalazzi, created a photographic exhibition “PhysisArt – Photography of Danakil Exhibition“, which toured Italy (Bologna, Modena, Chieti and Pescara) in 2017-2108.

Exhibition website

Workshop

In December 2016, Europlanet 2020 RI held a workshop on Ethiopia and the Danakil Depression in Planetary Science as part of its science networking activity and co-sponsored by the International Research School of Planetary Sciences (IRSPS), Italy. The aim of the meeting was to stimulate discussion and planning for future activities around the Danakil field site, consolidate collaborations and encourage new collaborative projects across all Horizon 2020 and other research programmes. You can find out more about the workshop, participants, presentations and outcomes here.

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Press releases

14 April 2016: Rainbow-coloured hydrothermal systems show spectrum of extreme life on Earth
18 April 2018: Extreme environment of Danakil Depression sheds light on Mars, Titan and nuclear waste

Media coverage

INAF TV – Sapore di sale marziano in Etiopia

17 December 2017 – Quartz Africa: This inhospitable volcanic region of Ethiopia gives us clues about life on Mars

4 August 2017 – BBC Future: In Earth’s hottest place, life has been found in pure acid

31 January 2017 – New York Times: Gazing into Danakil Depression’s Mirror, and Seeing Mars Stare Back

1 May 2016 – BBC Mundo: El colorido y letal desierto donde los científicos buscan los extremos de la vida

29 April 2016 – National Geographic Russia: Впадина Данакиль: самое странное место на Земле

28 April 2016 – Digital Journal: Life on other planets? Scientists look to Ethiopia first

27 April 2016 – Gizmodo: This Toxic Hot Spring Looks Like an Acid-Fueled Nightmare

27 February 2016 – Moebius: Un angolo di Marte sulla Terra. Un team bolognese ricerca forme di vita primitive

15 February 2016 – Unibo Magazine: Un angolo di Marte in Etiopia: la ricerca Unibo che punta al Pianeta Rosso

15 February 2016 – La Repubblica: Quell’angolo di Africa che sembra Marte: lo studio dell’Ateneo di Bologna

Images

Images can be viewed in our gallery. Higher resolution images can be downloaded from Europlanet’s Flickr album