Scorching hot springs house extreme life and a future ocean

Danakil depression

Luca Marziale

SCORCHING temperatures, salt-smothered terrain and toxic air. It doesn’t sound like an inviting place to live, yet here in the Danakil depression in Ethiopia, microorganisms are thriving.

The harsh environment sits at the Afar triangle, where three tectonic plates are gradually pulling apart. As the ground splits open, geothermally heated groundwater rises to the surface and evaporates, leaving a carpet of brightly coloured salty deposits. One day, when the tectonic plates drift far enough apart, the area will become the birthplace of a new ocean.

During summer, daily temperatures range from about 45°C to 55°C. Volcanic processes belch out toxic sulphur and chlorine vapours and create salty, acidic hot springs.

In spite of this, the area is teeming with life – microorganisms called thermophiles that are able to survive extreme temperatures. Scientists are studying their DNA to understand how they do it and find out

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New Scientist – Earth

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