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Birth of an Ocean: The Evolution of Ethiopia's Afar Depression

Formation of an ocean is a rare event, one few scientists have ever witnessed. Yet this geophysical nativity is unfolding today in one of the hottest and most inhospitable corners of the globe. Visit the site in safety through this extraordinary photographic essay
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MIRAGE OR HALLUCINATION?

Most years the greatest concern for the Afar people is finding adequate water. But the rains were unusually heavy in late 2006, and many of the salt fields remained flooded throughout my visit in January 2007.....[ More ]

SALT OF THE EARTH

The closest places to sell or exchange the salt are located in the Ethiopian highlands to the west--about a six days' walk for the camel caravans used to transport this unlikely export.....[ More ]

SALT OF THE EARTH

Salty traces of past deluges give the modern people of Afar a modest means to benefit from their baked and barren homeland. These nomadic herders collect the salt by hand, wielding wooden stakes and hatchets to break the thick layers into manageable blocks.....[ More ]

FATEFUL FLOODS

In other areas, alternating layers of salt and reddish marine sediment are visible in eroded canyon walls.....[ More ]

FATEFUL FLOODS

When sea level dropped and Afar was once again cut off from the sea, the floodwaters evaporated. Wind and water sculpted the salty traces of these past inundations over the ensuing millennia, sometimes carving bizarre formations called salt mushrooms.....[ More ]

FATEFUL FLOODS

The salt sculptures on the opposite page and others that decorate Afar serve as a reminder that the birth of an ocean is not a singular event but rather an ongoing saga. During the 30 million years this region has been stretching thin, global sea level has fluctuated, at times filling Afar with seawater.....[ More ]

POISON OR ELIXIR?

Near reddish pools of bubbling-hot, iron-rich water, the strong odor of hydrocarbon is a telltale sign of danger. Animals sometimes stop for a drink--not realizing it will be their last. I saw several ill-fated birds swirling in the scalding pools.....[ More ]

LETHAL FUMES

The surreal landscape of the Dallol crater results as rain-water percolates deep underground, heats up as it contacts hot magma and rises to the surface through thick layers of salt, dissolving the salt as it travels.....[ More ]

HELLISH HEAT

The mineral sulfur produces the lemon-yellow color in this earthly palette ( left ); blended with the signature red of oxidized iron, the sulfur stains turn orange ( center ). Only a few steps away from this vivid scene are drab, desiccated reminders of a hot spring's ephemeral nature ( right ).....[ More ]

HELLISH HEAT

One hundred kilometers north of Erta Ale, near the Eritrea border, is the Dallol crater. There molten magma simmering below the surface fuels a vast plumbing network of superheated water. The result is a 1.6-kilometer-wide field of hydrothermal vents, geysers and hot springs that call to mind the similar but more accessible environment in Yellowstone National Park in the western U.S.....[ More ]

LAKE OF LAVA

Lava emerging from cracks in the lake is particularly spectacular at night, when the sight evokes the phantoms of local lore.....[ More ]

LAKE OF LAVA

Most of the Afar people do not approach the volcano, because it is thought to harbor evil spirits. Seeing an Afar warrior on the volcano's summit is unusual; this man, Ibrahim, was my guide.....[ More ]

LAKE OF LAVA

Typically, though, blocks of basalt float like icebergs on the fiery liquid rock, which reaches 1,200 degrees C (2,190 degrees F).....[ More ]

LAKE OF LAVA

Atop Erta Ale is one of the earth's few quasi-permanent lava lakes. The flux of heat from the earth's interior is rarely sufficient to keep rock molten under the cooling effect of the atmosphere. Even on Erta Ale the heat sometimes slackens enough so that portions of the lake surface "freeze" into a black crust.....[ More ]

RISING ABOVE

The highest point in sunken Afar is Erta Ale, or "smoking mountain" in the language of the local people. Erta Ale is the northernmost volcano in a long chain that follows the so-called East African Rift.....[ More ]

GHOSTLY SALT DEPOSITS

Near Afdera volcano testify to ancient inundations in Ethiopia's Afar region. In the past 200,000 years the Red Sea flooded Afar's lowlands at least three times; the salt stayed behind as the seawater evaporated.....[ More ]

AFAR DEPRESSION

This area marks the north end of the East African Rift, a3,500-kilometer-long zone of tectonic turmoil that is tearing the continent in two ( arrows on globe ) The detail shows a segment of the depression.....[ More ]

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