Friday, October 22, 2010

The most incredible place on earth.

EX D:Ream rock star, professor, particle physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox yesterday received an OBE from The Queen for his services to science.
He said: "I was genuinely proud. It's wonderful for me personally but also a sign that science is increasingly valued in our country. The Queen asked me how the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is doing! I said it is working beautifully, Ma'am!"
Today Brian writes for The Sun on a region locals call The Gates Of Hell - but what he says is: "The most incredible place on earth."

At the Palace ... Brian Cox OBE
IN the Afar region of north-eastern Ethiopia stands one of the rarest geological phenomena on our planet.
Erta Ale is the most active volcano in Ethiopia and, at just 2,000 feet, one of the lowest volcanoes in the world.
But what makes this volcano special are the lava lakes that have dominated its summit for more than a century.
Lava lakes are incredibly rare - there are only five sites on earth where they can be seen and none have existed as long as those on the "smoking mountain" of Ethiopia.
Here the earth's crust is literally being ripped apart, leading to intense earthquakes and volcanic activity.
Erta Ale is by far the most challenging place I have ever visited.
It sits in the Danakil Depression, the remote and hostile region of north-east Africa where the Great Rift Valley meets the Red Sea.
The region is intensely geologically active because it is situated at the Afar Triple Junction, a delicate place in the earth's crust where the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden meet the East African Rift.
The Great Rift Valley is our birthplace - we are all related to someone who lived in the place we now call Ethiopia.
In a remarkable piece of research based on the Human Genome Project, it has been shown that human genetic diversity declines steadily with distance from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city.
In other words, we began the long march across the globe from the region around Addis. Ethiopia itself as a geopolitical entity is Africa's oldest independent nation, with a rich history stretching back well over 2,000 years, but a great civilisation existed in this region many hundreds if not thousands of years before that.
You cannot visit Ethiopia without glimpsing in your peripheral vision a line of ghosts standing by your shoulder, winding back through the ages to the birthplace of our species.

Hell is hot ... the inside of the active Erta Ale volcano in East Africa
Hell is hot ... the inside of the active Erta Ale volcano in East Africa
We began the intrepid part of our journey from a military airfield in the northern city of Mek'ele.
The machine charged with ferrying our film crew to Erta Ale was an ageing, but reassuringly rugged-looking Russian Mi8 transport helicopter, a reliable workhorse, I was told - there are more Mi8s flying than any other type of helicopter in the world.
The approach to Erta Ale from the air was unusually bleak and quite daunting. The landscape is lunar - although more desolation than magnificent desolation. It is an unremitting expanse of slate-grey basalt and baked brown rock, drained of colour by the brutal sun.
To protect us from the "smoking mountain" were a dozen Afar tribesmen, the nomadic people whose permission and protection are essential for a visit to Erta Ale.
To the locals, the volcano's largest lava lake is known as The Gates To Hell.
Erta Ale's lake of lava is a mesmerising sight, especially at night. The vertical edge of its crater is illuminated by the bright red glow of liquid rock.
The surface of the lake itself is mostly dark because the lava quickly cools as it meets the air, but it is criss-crossed by a series of almost perfectly drawn, jagged lines.
The reason for these strangely shaped lines is unknown. Staring at the lake is addictive, because every now and then a violent mini-eruption occurs somewhere on the surface of the lava, throwing molten rock vertically upwards into the night sky and clearing a hole in the darker crust to reveal the bright red lava beneath.

This burst of activity is accompanied by bubbling, sloshing sounds, a rapid increase in brightness and, occasionally, a caustic wave of gases that instantly burn the throat.
This is the signal to grab a gas mask rather than turn and run, because it is virtually impossible to avert your gaze from the mountain when its anger rises.
I think anger is the correct word - we had developed a respect already possessed by our Afar companions for Erte Ale.
It has a presence that is very difficult to put into words. Alive would be too strong, but it's unpredictable power lies somewhere in the shadowed spaces between animate and inanimate.
I understand absolutely why the Afar believe that demons emerge from the depths to drag unwary travellers to the Ethiopian equivalent of Hades... and we had to camp beside it for three nights.
Erta Ale is a window into our planet's history - a portal not only into its depths, but backwards in time. A slopping and gasping reminder of our earth's formation.
The magma rises up from many kilometres below the earth's crust, circulating to the surface and sinking down again.
It is a native and vital anachronism left over from the birth of a large rocky planet close to the sun, yet we have seen something similar in the far reaches of the solar system in Io, one of the moons of Jupiter, a world seething with volcanic activity.

  • Extracted from Wonders Of The Solar System, out now, £20. Copyright © Brian Cox 2010. Adapted by Ben Jackson.

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