The world is a crazy place, regularly violating our expectations and our sense of how things, “should,” be. For this very reason, learning about the world and universe, and our nearly insignificant place in it, is a good way to start overcoming the bad habit of thinking the world begins and ends with us that we acquire from too much coddling and self-esteem boosting charlatanry. I hope I don’t need to remind you again, though I gladly will, that we are not the most amazing things going on in this world. Biologically, sure we are fascinating, about as fascinating as any complicated biological system but our egos, lashed together from our biases, beliefs, and misconceptions, should only be considered interesting or valid from the point of view of the psychological sciences. It turns out that the world doesn’t seem to share the opinion that we deserve to be here or that we’re some kind of integral piece of the natural world puzzle. Just take a look at the kinds of inhospitable conditions that exist right here on our planet. Consider the harsh realities of life on this tiny spheroid (no the world isn’t a perfect ball though it sure isn’t flat as some mental defectives are claiming) then explain how this is all for us and all about us. The planet has always reserved the right to casually wipe out anything it wants, including us eventually.

In other words, get out of your head, open your eyes wide, wipe the languid look off your face, and stop thinking you got things all figured out. Your life will become so much richer when you do. To help you get there, here’s a collection of three extreme places located right here on Earth that you probably had no idea existed and that will remind you of our tenuous position in the scheme of things.

Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

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No, this is not another planet. This place can be found on Earth. Those pools of water are some of the most naturally acidic found on the planet.
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Huge mineral deposits rear out of the landscape.

 

This highly volcanic region lies north of what’s called the Afar Region of Ethiopia. It is, by way of averages, the hottest place on Earth with an average annual high temperature of 41 ° C (105° F). Not only that, there is little precipitation and only a few days a year see measurable rainfall. The water seen in the photos is the result of the Awash river drying up and terminating before it can make contact with the Indian Ocean. Though this place may look inhospitable, a few extremophile microbes manage to eek out an existence here, using exotic biology to survive the brutal conditions. But it isn’t just microbes that have made this place their home.

In this alien landscape made of hydrothermal fields, magma lakes, and chemical laced waters, the 1974 discovery of early Hominid fossils of the Austrolopithecus species would mark a turning point in our understanding of our evolution. The fossils of this individual would be dubbed Lucy and would be one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century. Since then, many other hominid fossils would be found in the region, leading the area to be called, “the cradle of humanity.”

We may have ditched the salt flats for salt shakers but it’s important to remember where we came from and that we’re still new to this planet in terms of geological time. No matter how far we may progress or how special we may think we are, there’s no denying the fact that our ancestors arose from a humble, inhospitable chunk of Earth that could just have easily murderer them in any number of vicious and interesting ways, thus killing the whole hominid/human project in the crib. Pun intended.

Valley of Death, Kamchatka, Russia

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The valley opens at the foot of the Kikpinych Volcano.
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Geysers and steam vents release noxious chemicals into the air.

This forbidding place is found on the Kamchatka Peninsula, a spur of land over 1,250 KM (or almost 800 miles for those of you who hate the metric system and fun) on the eastern coast of Russia. It lies at the foot of the Kikpinych Volcano (brownie points to anyone who can explain how to correctly pronounce that word). In the mid-70’s a scientist and a park ranger both noticed a preponderance of dead animals in this region. After studying the area, scientists concluded that the air was actually high in hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, carbon disuphide and other contaminants that would be released into the air through the geothermal vents that snake through and release into the valley. In case you don’t know what some of those are, let me explain.

They kill you.

Getting back to the death valley, human beings will also feel the effects of the toxins in the air if they overstay their welcome. Signs that your Russian vacation may be much longer than anticipated can be lightheadedness, heat in the temples, headaches, and other unpleasantness. On the plus side, your corpse will stay nicely preserved for a long time since the chemical cocktail lingering in the air retards the oxidation process that leads to decay. However, if you really want to stay forever young, or at least forever preserved, the next and final place on the list is for you.

Lake Natron, Tanzania

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Credit@ Nick Brandt. Not a statue. Think about that for a second. That is not a statue.
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A salt crust, “rafts,” colored by the pink and red pigment of the cyanobacteria and other microorganisms that call this lake home.
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Despite its high salinity, a few species such as these lesser flamingos, thrive in these waters. That’s right, these flamingos are tougher than you.

Lake Natron is found in northern Tanzania. What makes it so interesting is its high alkalinity which is due to the high amount of salt and soda in its waters and I don’t mean Pepsi. It’s more along the lines of the baking soda variety. To grant you a sense of how intense and caustic the Natron’s waters are, consider that ammonia, on the pH scale, is 11.5 and bleach is 12.6. At its most alkaline, Lake Natron can be over 12 on the pH scale and has reportedly been able to cause chemical burns on humans and other creatures not specifically adapted to its harsh environment. Lesser flamingos, which nest on its shores and feed on the salt-loving algae that live here, as well as some talapia and other fish all call this lake home. To us and other animals, it’s not a great idea to swim here. However, if you do end up dying in this red pool of natural awesomeness, you can at least bet that you’ll be preserved. Just like that bird at the beginning of this segment.

Due to the high levels of sodium and sodium bicarbonate-like chemicals, your body will, given a bit of time, become mummified. In fact, the ancient Egyptians  used natron, sort of a watered-down (that’s a chemistry joke) version of the trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate (or trona to its friends) that saturates the lake to make their mummies. However, unlike many sensationalist sites have claimed, neither you nor other animals will die on contact with the lake. That doesn’t mean you should go splashing around and drinking from it, but it won’t kill you outright and turn you to stone. If you want to look as well preserved as our feathered friend up there, you’ll have to be dead going in. Maybe you should visit one of the two previous spots on the list then be shipped to Lake Natron. Just a suggestion.

And there you have it. There are plenty of other crazy places on this planet that will blow your mind and I may add another post on this topic. But for now, just keep in mind that these extreme locations serve as a reminder of the fragility of organic life, ourselves included. We are tolerated on this planet. At a moment’s notice, things could change. So let’s tread lightly and respectfully, always remembering that we are not in control and never have been and to live with the humility that our place in existence demands.

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