Volcano expert abseils into the hottest place on earth
(19 March 2009)
A Durham University scientist gets as close-up as you possibly can to the hottest place on Earth, in a new BBC TV programme to be aired this week.
Earth scientist Dougal Jerram will be shown descending on ropes into the fiery furnace of the volcano Erta Ale in the Danakil Desert in Northern Ethiopia. It’s officially the hottest place on the planet and one of the most geologically active and hostile environments known.
The programme made for BBC One by Lion Television, follows a team of scientists and adventurers as they set out to understand the science behind this extraordinary area, its people and animals. Presented by Kate Humble, the team consists of extreme vet Steve Leonard, volcanologist; Dougal Jerram, biologist and explorer Richard Wiese, expedition doctor Mukul Agarwal and wilderness medic and survival expert Sue Purvis.
The team sets out on an incredible journey to meet the Afar, a fearsome nomadic warrior tribe who live in this remote furnace, and to previously unexplored geological marvels.
Dr Jerram said: “As I climbed over the lip of the crater I got a massive rush of adrenalin; was I really doing this, with the hiss of the volcano sounding all around and the glowing heat from the bubbling lava lake in full view? Abseiling down into Erta Ale, one of the world’s oldest active lava lakes, was amazing in itself, but to get all of our 3D laser scanning equipment down there as well was a major feat. We now have the first ever 3D geological model of Erta Ale and have tested out our research capabilities at Durham to the extreme.”
The production team faced some unique challenges. The filming took place in one of the most extreme environments on earth, with temperatures regularly soaring to 45C and sometimes over 60C. Dougal’s descent into the live volcano crater is one of the most exciting challenges ever filmed for TV. It was so hot, the film crew had to use specialist disc recording to capture the moment of descent.
Durham University’s technical equipment played a vital role in the mission. The scientific team used Durham’s hi-resolution 3D laser scanner to create the world’s first-ever 3D map of an active lava lake. Dr Jerram said: “Abseiling with 80 kilograms of equipment into a volcano wasn’t easy, but the results are invaluable and will help us to understand how volcanoes change over time.”
The programme tells a tale of danger and discovery as the team meets the local Afar warriors and learns how they survive in this harsh environment.
Dr Jerram said: “Running an expedition to the Afar is one thing; living here is a totally different prospect. It is both amazing and humbling to see the Afar people living with the geology and environment that make this the hottest place on earth. The remote Afar region is an arid area, a rift depression where the African continent is splitting apart and a new ocean and landscape will form. It is incredibly dry in the north and, in parts, the local people use water from volcanic fumerols that condense geothermal steam and provide sufficient water for drinking, washing, cleaning and watering animals. It’s like no other place on earth.”
The programme is aired on BBC 1 at 9pm on Thursday 19th and 26th March 2009.