There’s at least one place on Earth with water but no life

A recent paper by a team of scientists refuted earlier findings about the geothermal Dallol area in Ethiopia. According to the team, there can be sterile water and harsh conditions there that may make life impossible to bloom.

The geothermal Dallol area in the Danakil Depression is a hellish yet beautiful landscape: dubbed ‘the hottest place on Earth’, it can measure “daily winter temperatures [that] can easily exceed 45°C”.

Located in northeast Ethiopia, Dallol consists of “hypersaline sites, magnesium-rich brines, and hypersaline, hyperacidic and hot pools on an active volcano”. The site has been called “one of the most alien places on Earth” by the BBC, which reported in 2017 that an expedition had found it “teeming with life.”

That may not be the case, as a recent scientific article asserts. A team of scientists led by biologist Purificacion Lopez Garcia say there is no life in Dallol’s multi-extreme ponds, Spain’s  Information and Scientific News Service (SINC) reports.

Those who say they have found life in the Danakil Depression

Barbara Cavalazzi from the University of Bologna in Italy was part of the team who made the assertion that life could flourish in the Danakil Depression. She and her team suggested that by studying the extreme conditions in Dallol, one could draw parallels with extraterrestrial research –– for example, on Mars.

“On Mars, you have mineral deposits and sulphate deposits similar to those seen in the Danakil Depression. You also have active brine flowing periodically,” Cavalazzi told the BBC in 2017. So by studying in which extreme Earthly environments life can survive, and how it does so, we can start to figure out which regions of planets like Mars might be habitable, the BBC reported.

In this file photo, dead birds in the acid lake in the Danakil Depression, Afar region, Dallol, Ethiopia on February 26, 2016 in Dallol, Ethiopia.
In this file photo, dead birds in the acid lake in the Danakil Depression, Afar region, Dallol, Ethiopia on February 26, 2016 in Dallol, Ethiopia. (Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis / Getty Images)

Cavalazzi admits that birds and small animals cannot survive in the area, because of the toxic gases near the ground that is carbon dioxide rich and poisons wildlife. Humans are not susceptible as they are taller.

The life forms Cavalazzi and her team are referring to are “bacteria found in both the salt springs and in Danakil volcanic crater.”

Cavalazzi’s team, led by Felipe Gomez, published its findings in Nature magazine in May 2019, saying “We demonstrated the presence of living ultra-small microorganisms in a multi-extreme environment with adverse conditions for life: extreme low pH (0.25), temperature (90 °C), redox potential, salinity and heavy metals content.”

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