The Dallol Geothermal Area, Northern Afar (Ethiopia) — An Exceptional Planetary Field Analog on Earth

Cavalazzi, B.; Barbieri, R.; Gómez, F.; Capaccioni, B.; Olsson-Francis, K.; Pondrelli, M.; Rossi, A.P.; Hickman-Lewis, K.; Agangi, A.; Gasparotto, G.; Glamoclija, M.; Ori, G.G.; Rodriguez, N. and Hagos, M. (2019). The Dallol Geothermal Area, Northern Afar (Ethiopia) — An Exceptional Planetary Field Analog on Earth. Astrobiology, 19(4) pp. 553–578.



The Dallol volcano and its associated hydrothermal field are located in a remote area of the northern Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, a region only recently appraised after decades of inaccessibility due to severe political instability and the absence of infrastructure. The region is notable for hosting environments at the very edge of natural physical-chemical extremities. It is surrounded by a wide, hyperarid salt plain and is one of the hottest (average annual temperatureDallol: 36–38°C) and most acidic natural system (pHDallol ≈0) on Earth. Spectacular geomorphologies and mineral deposits produced by supersaturated hydrothermal waters and brines are the result of complex interactions between active and inactive hydrothermal alteration of the bedrock, sulfuric hot springs and pools, fumaroles and geysers, and recrystallization processes driven by hydrothermal waters, degassing, and rapid evaporation.

The study of planetary field analog environments plays a crucial role in characterizing the physical and chemical boundaries within which life can exist on Earth and other planets. It is essential for the definition and assessment of the conditions of habitability on other planets, including the possibility for biosignature preservation and in situ testing of technologies for life detection. The Dallol area represents an excellent Mars analog environment given that the active volcanic environment, the associated diffuse hydrothermalism and hydrothermal alteration, and the vast acidic sulfate deposits are reminiscent of past hydrothermal activity on Mars. The work presented in this paper is an overview of the Dallol volcanic area and its hydrothermal field that integrates previous literature with observations and results obtained from field surveys and monitoring coupled with sample characterization. In so doing, we highlight its exceptional potential as a planetary field analog as well as a site for future astrobiological and exploration programs.

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