The Afar Depression in northern Ethiopia is one of the most tectonically active regions in the world.
Shaped by volcanic activity, the floor of the depression is largely composed of lava, and the area is riddled with charming natural formations that literally bake in the scorching sun.
One of these is Gaet’ale Pond, the largest of a series of small bodies of water, located near the Dallol crater in Danakil Depression, one of the hottest inhabited locations on Earth.
But, despite its balmy temperature, it is certainly not the place for a hot dip in the water. It often belches out toxic gases, as evidenced by the dead insects and birds often found near its shores, and researchers consider it a dangerous, and potentially lethal, health hazard for human visitors.
But what really sets Gaet’ale Pond apart is its salt content: It has a salinity of 43%, making it by far the saltiest body of water on Earth.
To put into perspective just how salty it actually is, you should know that the Dead Sea, the world’s most famous hypersaline body of water, has a salinity of 33.7%, while the world’s oceans have an average salinity of 3.5%.
Well…and the water in this small pond is so overly saturated with iron salts that it feels greasy on the hand, as if it were oil.
The locals in this part of Ethiopia sometimes call it literally “oily lake”, because of how oily the water feels, while others call it “killer lake”, because of the toxic gases emitted through the surface of the water.
Although the Danakil Depression, a geological depression that resulted from the divergence of three tectonic plates in the Horn of Africa is unique to Ethiopia, experts warn that tourists should take caution also around Gaet’ale and the other nearby salty pools.
In fact the level of toxic gases, most likely volcanically produced CO2, can sometimes be high enough to kill adult humans, especially near the surface, where gasses tend to accumulate.
And not by chance, the variety of bird carcasses observed by scientists performing a study at Gaet’ale serve as a warning to anyone who wants to get close. Despite the birds may have drunk the extremely salty water, it was most likely the CO2 that killed them.
The extremely salty water is what preserved their bodies though, acting as brine and effectively pickling them.
Going near the surface of the lake is also not recommended for curious tourists, as the salty crust that continuously forms around it may be brine-saturated and very weak, and may not support the weight of a person…
No one knows exactly how old Gaet’ale is, but according to Landsat satellite imagery taken on 6 February 2003, it existed in roughly the same semi-circular shape.
But it was a 2005 earthquake that reactivated the volcanic spring that continuously feeds it with its extremely salty water.
Images from web – Google Research