Extreme heat

The Danakil Depression in the Afar Triangle, Ethiopia, is the point where three tectonic plates diverge; has the highest average annual temperature on the planet; and Lucy, the Australopithecus fossil, was found there.

Kotopoulou Electra / CC BY-SA

A few months ago I wrote about the Gaet’ale Pond, one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. It’s in a region of Ethiopia known as the Danakil Depression, and that place has many many interesting things going on.

The Somali, Nubian, and Arabian tectonic plates are all fleeing the scene from this area, leaving a rift valley that gets wider by a couple of centimetres every year. I don’t blame the plates for wanting to leave. The year-round average temperature in Dallol, a (former) town in the Danakil Depression, was 34.6°C between 1960 and 1966. That’s the average for a whole year, by the way: the average high was a ridiculous 41.2°C. That town, by the way, was a centre for salt mining a hundred years ago – there was even a railway line to take the salt to market. Now the railway is gone and the town is deserted.

Lucy, the famous Australopithecus fossil that’s a 3.2 million year old ancestor of humankind, was found around here too. Because the plates are moving apart there are some serious volcanoes and upwelling lava; the incredibly colourful hot pools pictured above have made it a great place to study extremophiles – micro-organisms that can survive in sulphuric conditions inhospitable to most life.

So yeah, between the extreme heat, the extreme salt, the extremophiles, and the extreme ancestors, it’s a pretty amazing place all around.

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