HomeBBC NEWSTravelThe birthplace of a new ocean

    The birthplace of a new ocean


    The anti-utopian and exceptionally beautiful Lake Abbey is a desolate landscape of limestone chimneys and active geothermal activity that could one day form the world’s next ocean.

    Lake Abbe straddles the border of Ethiopia and Djibouti

    Straddling the Ethiopia-Djibouti border and surrounded by an arid apocalyptic desert, Lake Abbey is one of the world’s most exotic and inaccessible waters. 19 kilometers wide and 17 kilometers long, this huge alkaline lake is so salty it’s toxic to drink and looks like a desert oasis, but its unusual geology is more akin to a lunar landscape. Hundreds of huge limestone chimneys dot the horizon, soaring above the blue-green salt flats to heights of 50m. These spires often eject clouds of steamy sulfur into the air, creating a transcendent spectacle in one of Africa’s most inhospitable regions. (Source: Juan Martinez)

    The alkaline lake sits in the middle of the vast Afar Depression

    Lake Abbey is located at the junction of the Somali, Arabian and Nubian tectonic plates. The area, also known as the Afar Depression, is home to the earliest known human fossil specimens and is considered by some paleontologists to be the cradle of civilization. The unique appearance of the lake is the result of the gradual splitting of the subsurface tectonic plates, causing the crust beneath Lake Abbey to continue to thin. As these plates slowly separated, underwater springs allowed magma to escape from thin fissures deep in the lake. In fact, deposits of travertine (a volcanically heated calcium-rich limestone) formed huge desert chimneys over thousands of years, which did not become visible until the 1950s when the lake level dropped by two-thirds. Used for irrigation purposes. (Source: Juan Martinez)

    Geophysicists believe this area will be the home of a new ocean in 10 million years

    Today, the tectonic plates beneath the Afar Depression continue to diverge at a rate of about 2 centimeters per year, and geophysicists believe that in about 10 million years, the Afar Depression and this huge alkaline lake will be the birthplace of a new ocean. As the plates continue to split, scientists believe the Red Sea will inundate the coastal highlands of Djibouti and the Afar Depression will be completely covered with water. According to scientists at NASA Earth Observatory, the Red Sea, the East African Rift Valley and the Gulf of Aden will become an ocean as large as the Atlantic Ocean, and the Horn of Africa will become an island. (Source: Juan Martinez)

    The Afar people living in the area are semi-nomadic

    Although the Afar Depression is one of Africa’s most isolated and inhospitable environments, it is not uninhabited. Travel 150 kilometers west from Djibouti City, the capital of Djibouti, to Lake Abbey, where scattered settlements and isolated aris (armadillo-shelled huts made of palm mats) dot the sun-drenched landscape with too little water for permanent farmland to survive. “Among the Afar [people who live here], it’s very common to live in an ali,” says Mohammed Omar Ali, a local guide. “They can easily be taken from one place to another.” Many of the Afar living in the area are semi-nomadic. They migrate with their families around the salt flats of the Great Depression, looking for salt to trade and water and food to survive before moving on. Most of these small, makeshift Afar villages have no access to drinking water or electricity. According to Omar Ali, many of the settlements around Lake Abbey did not exist until recently due to lack of access. (Source: Juan Martinez)

    Climate change has increased temperatures in this already-sweltering region

    With winter temperatures hovering around 30 degrees Celsius and summer temperatures hovering around 45 degrees Celsius, Lake Abbey is one of the hottest places on earth all year round. Many young Afar shepherds, farmers and traders work under the scorching sun in harsh conditions. In recent years, the effects of climate change have further increased temperatures in the region and also exacerbated droughts. But according to Omar Ali, Afar people are reluctant to leave the Great Depression, preferring to stay, form makeshift communities and continue their traditional way of life. (Source: Juan Martinez)

    In the morning, steam from underground springs pours through vents in soaring chimneys

    This eerie landscape is most evocative at dawn, when temperatures are at their coolest and steam rises from the underground hot springs through the vents of the chimney. Later, at sunrise, bright shades of orange and pink fill the sky, illuminating the hot springs and salt mines in a dazzling light show. No other place on Earth looks like this. In fact, scientists believe that the most similar chimney-like strata are located at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, where large tectonic plates are slowly tearing apart and forming similar structures. (Source: Juan Martinez)

    Most visitors only see Lake Abbe on a brief day trip from Djibouti City

    While most visitors travel to Lake Abbey from Djibouti City for day trips, the best way to explore Lake Abbey’s diverse terrain and see the lake’s famous pink flamingos is to camp overnight. In addition, only a few guides, such as Kamil Hassan, head of Asboley Camp, are available to take visitors to the lake. Hassan has spent most of his life at Lake Abbey and has seen firsthand how the area has become drier and more fertile over the years. With his knowledge of the area’s topography and culture, he is now working to promote tourism as an alternative way of life for the Afar people. (Source: Juan Martinez)

    Pink flamingoes live in the hypersaline waters of Lake Abbe

    “Tourists rarely try to see flamingos. You’re the first one this year,” Hassan said. “It’s just too hard.” Reaching the high-salinity waters of Lake Abbey and seeing the migrating flocks of flamingos of all sizes is an adventure in itself. From Asboley Camp, birders drive until the soft, sticky mud of the salt flats begins to sink under the weight of their vehicles. Visitors must then walk for hours through meadows, hot springs and vast salt flats without a hint of shade to protect them from the intense sun. About 300 meters from the shoreline, the jelly-like mud and quicksand terrain causes anyone (or anything) to sink half a meter with each step, creating a natural barrier that protects birds from predators. (Source: Juan Martinez)

    At night, Lake Abbe looks like a sci-fi set

    As the sun goes down, Lake Abbey turns into a perfect anti-utopian fantasy scene. As the temperature drops, the silhouettes of twisted chimneys look transcendent. Stars blanket the sky and life slows down in Abbey Lake. Most Afars spend their time in their nomadic communities, and the only people visible from a distance are shepherds who herd donkeys back to their settlements before nocturnal predators such as jackals or hyenas emerge to hunt. (Source: Juan Martinez)

    Few places are as remote as Lake Abbe

    With no marked roads, electricity or basic infrastructure, the remoteness of Abbey Lake creates a sense of isolation like few places on earth. While travelers visiting Lake Abbey may see this remote landscape as a different world, for Afar, it is home. (Source: Juan Martinez)

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