Dallol: Hell on Earth

There is a hell on Earth. A melting pot of all things toxic and harmful to humans lies near Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea, bubbling, volcanic, and acidic that can kill you in an instant if you don’t watch your step. It’s called Dallol, and it’s part of the Danikil Depression — itself no paradise.

At 125m below sea level, the Danakil Depression is one of the lowest places on Earth. (By comparison, Death Valley is only 86m below sea level.) The Danikil lies at the centre of major volcanic and tectonic activity. For thousands of years, the Arabian, Somali and Nubian Plates have tugged it in opposite directions. This has produced some of the most unusual geological features ever seen. Nightmarish in some ways, but dream-like and surrealistically beautiful in others.

Yellow and orange salt formations

Salt and lava-heated groundwater react to produce electric colors. Photo: Shutterstock


Hottest place in the world

This region also has the hottest year-round temperatures in the world. It can reach 50˚C and average 35˚over 365 days. Its annual rainfall is as low as 100mm. Unlike normal deserts, it does not even cool off at night.

All water on the ground, except that in brine or sulphur pools, has completed evaporated over time. It is hard to believe that the Red Sea once covered this region. But centuries of volcanic eruptions and wholesale evaporation from the searing heat have left behind nothing but salt deposits and pans as far as the eye can see. 

The salt deposits belong to a vast network of hydrothermal fields called Dallol. These fields connect to the main volcano a subterranean lava lake. Hot springs, sulphur springs, toxic lakes, and geysers are only a handful of wonders in this region. The salt has formed into pillars of remarkable shapes, variously described as “artichoke-like”,  “mushroom-like”, “water lilies, flower-like crystals, egg-shaped crusts, and pearl-like spheres.”

The colors come from various iron oxides

The heat and magma react every moment with salt, water, sulphur, carbon dioxide, hundreds of minerals. In some places, extremophile organisms thrive in this harsh environment. The multicolored pools of red, yellow, green, orange and blue come from volcanically heated groundwater carrying salts to the surface. This salt reacts with minerals like gypsum, hematite and sylvite. It eventually evaporates to leave behind these pools and pillars of breathtaking color.

In the sulphuric waters themselves, even extremophiles cannot survive. The water temperature is about 100˚C while the pH is below zero. It is even more acidic than the battery-acid crater lake of Maly Semyachik, which we covered last week.

Dead animals and insects litter the ground after mistakenly drinking from these pools.

An alien-looking reddish wasteland

The hellish landscape of Dallol. Photo: Shutterstock


It is only fitting that such a site becomes a hub of research into other planets, particularly Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. Researchers from the University of Bologna and the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas found it likely that some of Dallol’s extremophiles may exist on the Red Planet. 

Barnacle-like salt formations

The salt takes on many unusual forms. Photo: Shutterstock


As barren as it is, salt mining used to thrive. In the 20th century, salt had immensely high value. The local Afar people, who have built a resistance to the heat, used to walk through Dallol to the salt mines at Lake Afar to extract blocks of salt from the pans. That industry, like the place itself, is dead now.

Still, in a typical year, some adventurous tourists come to see this alien world within our world. Because of political unrest, as well as the natural dangers of Dallol from the carbon dioxide-laced air and the acidic hellscape, everyone must have a guide. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it is easy to break through an eggshell-thin crust of salt into acidic waters lying beneath.

It is quite ironic that a dead zone on this planet is the key to finding life on others. Who knows? Dallol may help us explore the far corners of our universe sooner than we think.