In northeastern Ethiopia one of the earth’s driest deserts is making way for a new ocean. This region of the African continent, known to geologists as the Afar Depression, is pulling apart in two directions—a process that is gradually thinning the earth’s rocky outer skin. The continental crust under Afar is a mere 20 kilometers from top to bottom, less than half its original thickness, and parts of the area are over 100 meters below sea level. Low hills to the east are all that stops the Red Sea from encroaching.
Such proximity to the planet’s scorching interior has transformed the region into a dynamic landscape of earthquakes, volcanoes and hydrothermal fields—making Afar a veritable paradise for people, like me, eager to understand those processes. Yet few outsiders, scientists included, have ever set foot in Afar. Daytime temperatures soar to 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer, and no rain falls for much of the year. But I knew I faced more than treacherous geology and climate. Nasty geopolitical struggles—namely, war between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea—combine with those natural hardships to make Afar utterly inhospitable.