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This Must Be the Place

Industry and Science Tangle in Ethiopia

ISSUE:  Winter 2018

The Danakil is an environmentally outlandish, politically disputed, mineral-rich plain about 124 miles long by thirty-one miles wide in northern Ethiopia, on the border of Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. Home to the Afar people, a predominantly Muslim group that lives in the southern point of Eritrea as well as Ethiopia proper, the Danakil is one of the lowest, and (at least in terms of year-round median temperature) hottest places on Earth, dipping down to 410 feet below sea level and sometimes topping 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.

In late January, five teams, about thirty people in all, traveled to the Danakil to conduct field research. These were researchers from Europe and the United States, traveling under the banner of Europlanet 2020—a consortium of Europe’s planetary scientists. Some, like Dr. Felipe Gómez, a biochemist at the Centro de Astrobiología in Spain, had been to the Danakil more than once. Most had never been to the site; some had never been to Africa. But all were well traveled, with the ruddy energy of adventurers and the competitive instincts of academics, ravenous for credit, prestige, and funding. The Europlanet work in Ethiopia is founded upon three decades of demarcating terrestrial analogue sites, or spots on Earth that most closely approximate the conditions in outer space. Right now, the best place on this planet to understand Mars is the Danakil. 

According to Gómez, the Danakil is unique as a terrestrial analogue site because it is the only place with more than one type of extreme environment. Not only is it very acidic with high temperatures and sulfuric water coming out from hydrothermal spouts, it also has metals and salts in deposition. Understanding our capacity to exist at the terminuses is one of the guiding principles of the search for life on Mars, as well as the study of how humans might live there down the line.

Despite all of this, the Danakil is still more unlike Mars than like it. It is much hotter than Mars, which is usually very, very cold, with temperatures as low as minus 195 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. The Danakil, on the other hand, averages almost 94 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. There is something else that guides the work: “Though our focus on Mars is now strongly science- and exploration-driven, there is still a rather grand and poetic awe that imbues the motives of so many Mars researchers,” said Dr. Darlene Lim, a geobiologist based at the NASA Ames Research Center. “We seem to still be captivated, and perhaps even more now that the possibility of having humans set foot on Mars is on the horizon.”

The Danakil is home to other extremes, too: It is the site of both futuristic science that looks at how humanity might exist after Earth, and of the very earthly matter of grinding poverty and ancient cultures. Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan is the village chief of the sleepy enclave called Hamad-Ile, the last stop where scientists and tourists stay before the tingling expanse of Danakil’s salt plains opens out wide. The men who live in Hamad-Ile are salt miners who batter away with handmade pickaxes to cut salt bricks out of the earth that then get transported for sale. Hamad welcomes any interest in the Danakil, whether it be for science, mining, or tourism. It all boosts the local economy, he says. The mining companies built a tarmac road, scientists often bring pens to distribute in schools, and the increase in tourism has brought opportunities for villagers to make beds to sell to campsites. 

And yet it’s difficult not to think Hamad has chosen this slightly delusional optimism, given the disparity between what’s been brought into Hamad-Ile and the scale of what’s been taken out. The poverty in Hamad-Ile and its surrounds is great, the information that the Danakil has bequeathed is so valuable, and its land so full of potential for profit; but perhaps there’s no possible way he can focus on that disparity. It would drive you insane. The scientists and researchers on the Europlanet mission are aware of this dynamic, and express limited concern when it’s broached, but they don’t pretend to be in Ethiopia on a humanitarian mission. A few of the scientists who are heavily invested in the region, such as Gómez, are working on longer-term projects to engage Ethiopian students in astrology studies and the like. 

As of yet, the Ethiopian government has not nominated the Danakil to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for protection; even as it becomes a more popular tourist destination, there are few regulations on human activity here. Some cigarette butts and one pair of underwear found under mineral rock are a depressing shock to the senses. Upon arrival, the behatted tourists stand armed with sunscreen, selfie sticks, and fat-lensed cameras. In their defense, pictures fare better than adjectives to describe the singular space. The salt plains are dotted with spots where nature has conspired to show its work: a goldenrod-yellow oily lake; the dissected flank of a volcano in the form of altered salt deposits that look like Antoni Gaudí sculptures; a belching, magenta lava pool; and the alien, multicolored hypothermic volcanic outcrop called the Dallol.  

Before the Danakil became a prime place for more than scientific or touristic profiteering, it was of great interest to colonizers and miners. “These lands, bordering on the Red Sea, have been critical to world trade,” explained Martin Plaut, a Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. “At the same time they are remote, hot, and desolate. They are also sparsely populated and therefore open to intervention by external powers, who have done so for centuries. This is as true today as it has ever been.” Indeed, to look at these photos is to see scientific advancement happening in an economy and culture almost entirely removed from the work. There is an undeniable tension. 

In the morning there is no dew. Trucks sporting the Yara Mining logo shuttle down the main artery that runs through Hamad-Ile. The miners leave as well, by foot, camel, or sometimes an overcrowded truck bed. They, too, head for the sparkling plains. The scientists with Europlanet follow after breakfast and coffee. Everyone is going the same way.

Miners use traditional tools to break salt into bricks, which they then carry for hours on camelback to the nearest town. The mining site is a popular destination for local tourists, who gather in small groups to snap photos of the operation. Photograph by Alex Pritz. Dutch researchers kneel next to a sulfur pool at Dallol, Ethiopia. The extreme heat, acidity, and sulfur content at Dallol make it an excellent research site for scientists studying the limits of life, both here on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system. Photograph by Alex Pritz. Dr. Karen Olsson-Francis collects a sample from a sulfur pool. These samples will be brought back to her lab in the United Kingdom, where her team will look for biosignatures that may provide clues about the extreme limits of life here on Earth as an analogue for extraterrestrial sites. Photograph by Alex Pritz. Vincent Rennie prepares to take a pH measurement from a sulfur pool. Photograph by Alex Pritz. Miners load a truck with salt bricks to be transported to the nearest trading village. In the harsh conditions of the Danakil Depression, salt mining is one of the only sources of income outside the tourism industry. Photograph by Alex Pritz. Left: Textures formed by the dried salt create patterns around the sulfur pools in Dallol, Ethiopia. RIGHT: Textures formed by dried salt create endless patterns on the ground (top) and sharp crystalline edges (middle). bottom: Pools of acidic, sulfiric water form in the cracks created between the dried salt. Photograph by Alex Pritz. An Ethiopian guide assists with the testing of a sulfur pool. Photograph by Alex Pritz. Ethiopian guide assists with the testing of a sulfur pool. A local miner transports bricks of salt from the excavation site to the nearest town where it can be sold. Photograph by Alex Pritz. An outcropping of salt, the last landmark on the road to Dallol, Ethiopia. Photograph by Alex Pritz.


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