A group of tourists are in hot water for walking out onto the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park to explore beyond the boundaries of the boardwalk in May. Apparently the photo opportunities from the boardwalk were not adequate. (The National Park Service has since filed criminal charges against the group.) Meanwhile, a world away from Yellowstone’s hot springs, scientists from the Centre for Astrobiology in Spain made a first-ever expedition to a little-known group of hot springs in Ethiopia. They were there to study the Ethiopian toxic hot springs.
In a setting that can honestly be described as other-worldly, the Spanish researchers set out to learn more about the Danakil Depression. The hot springs here are at temperatures just below boiling, and vent toxic chlorine and sulfur vapors into the air that burn the throat and lungs of anyone who dares venture near. The air around the hot springs reportedly smells like someone had a bad case of gas because there is so much sulfur in the air.
Despite the toxic air and dangerously hot water, the hot springs are incredibly beautiful in their own, strange way (think Yellowstone’s hot springs on steroids). The salt formations that are left behind as the water evaporates in the dry, desert air are a stunning array of colors: green, brown, orange, white and yellow. The colors come from iron, mud and algae that are contained in the hot springs before the water evaporates.
The climate around Ethiopia’s toxic hot springs is no more hospitable than the springs themselves. Temperatures during the day hit 107º F while researchers were there, and dropped to only 86º F at night.
The expedition would probably not be most people’s idea of a great vacation, between the oppressive heat and the air smelling like your roommate ate too much chili. It is all in the name of science though. The Ethiopian hot springs have never been fully studied. There have only been a few scientific publications on the toxic hot springs, and there has never before been detailed biological studies done at the site. On this trip, scientists measured oxygen levels, pH, humidity and temperatures around the hot springs. They also collected bacteria samples and tested a new DNA extraction technique.
While the researchers spent only three days in April at the toxic hot springs, there are more trips planned in the future. So, stay tuned for updates from one of the world’s strangest hot springs.