‘Dallol, in search of the first moments of life’
A 52’ film directed by Olivier Grunewald
and produced by Camera Lucida
“Help us to preserve Dallol, a unique natural site, by supporting the production of a film”
WHY A DOCUMENTARY ON DALLOL?
In the north of Ethiopia, at the bottom of the African rift, a salt dome - full of geysers, hot springs, acid lakes and fluorescent green pools encrusted with sulfur - emerges from an overheated plain. The hydrothermal site of Dallol results from the interaction between the salty Red Sea waters, the runoff and the heat from a magmatic chamber located well below 2,000 meters of salt.
Long isolated because of war, Dallol has therefore been very little studied until now. For the first time, an interdisciplinary international team has decided to explore this unique site. Dallol has almost every extreme condition imaginable (aridity, high temperature, salinity, acidity) and these features resemble what our planet could have looked like about 3.5 billion years ago, as life arose.
This geological and biological heritage is now threatened by a large-scale potash mine.
The director and photographer Olivier Grunewald has followed this scientific adventure, from the collection of field samples to the first laboratory discoveries of evidence of life and extremophilic microorganisms.
His 52’ film, currently under production, should enable to raise awareness among the Ethiopian authorities regarding the absolute necessity to protect Dallol, urging them to apply for its nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
WHO ARE WE?
The association Aux Origines du Monde aims at promoting knowledge, the protection and promotion of natural sites that are threatened and/or have strong heritage value, through scientific exploration. Its founding members have all embarked onto the Dallol adventure.
WHAT IS THE FILM ABOUT?
Filmed in January 2016, this documentary tells the story of an expedition in the Danakil depression in Ethiopia. The scientific team, composed of biologists, microbial ecologists and geologists, discovers the “Dallol hell” emerging in the middle of an immense salt plain. After 12 days of exploration, study and sample collection, the team members are unanimous: this site full of geysers, boiling water ponds, acid lakes, melted magnesium chloride flows and sulfur concretions, features all the extremes: altitude, -120 m below the sea level, aridity, water temperature up to 118°C, salty brines, hyperacidity.
This raises the question: can life forms adapted to these conditions thrive in this environment where everything seems nevertheless opposed to their existence?
Back to the laboratory, the electron microscope confirms the presence of traces of life in some of the samples collected on the field. Same with the molecular analyses!
The Afar region in Ethiopia, where the oldest known traces of hominids were found, could perhaps one day be the place of the discovery of a microorganism similar to the one that was the ancestor of all living beings.
Dallol, a place of a strange beauty
Olivier Grunewald, a nature photograph fascinated by the wild forces of nature, has visited several times this island of beauty. Despite the fumaroles and the merciless sun, it is difficult not to succumb to the sulfurous magic of Dallol: mineral, glowing colorful concretions, ponds overflowing angelic-toxic green syrups, sparkling geysers, evaporite mushrooms, dark or acid lakes, sprinkled with little salt crystals...
Threats to Dallol
As he came back to Dallol in 2008, Olivier realized some changes had occurred. Roads under construction and the presence of drilling wells confirmed the rumor of a project set to exploit the immense potash reservoir in the Northern part of the Afar territory. Mining on a large scale could affect the functioning of the Dallol hydrothermal system, which could potentially dry it and thus cause its disappearance.
A living site
Apart from some geological explorations, we know little about Dallol. Wandering through this strange planet, Olivier Grunewald wondered whether microscopic life forms could thrive in these colorful ponds. Since bacteria had been discovered in Yellowstone hot springs, why not here?
The photographer asks the scientific community: Who would be willing to study the biological richness of Dallol and thus raise awareness of the site? The ultimate goal would be to urge the Ethiopian authorities, and eventually UNESCO, to protect the site from potash-exploitation dangers.
Meeting with biologists specialised in extreme environments
When Olivier Grunewald met Purificación López-García and David Moreira Fernández, two CNRS researchers specialised in extreme environments, they were immediately highly motivated to explore Dallol. The project took shape little by little. It took nonetheless 8 years before the team could obtain travel authorizations, implement the logistics and find funding. Finally, the financial support of the Fondation IRIS, under the aegis of the Fondation de France, allowed the team to leave for the hydrothermal site in January 2016.
Filming a documentary at Dallol, an extreme planet
Mid-January 2016. Heavily loaded jeeps reach the Danakil depression in Ethiopia. The asphalted road ends where the big salt plain starts. In the small village of Ahmed Ela, the team sets off with eight soldiers from the Ethiopian army in charge of their security, a measure imposed by the government. Olivier immediately films his first images: a caravan of camels loaded with salt going across the immense water table caused by recent rains related to the climatic phenomenon El Niño. Will the scientific team be able to reach the hydrothermal site and accomplish its mission?
The camp is finally set in a salt canyon, at the foot of the hydrothermal dome, preserved from the merciless sun and the desert dust. Life in the camp organizes. Each morning at dawn, the team leaves to collect, measure, analyze in the different environments, under tight military supervision.
Rapidly, samples pile up: filters retaining microorganisms, salt crystals, concretions, sediment cores. The precious collection is scrupulously labeled...
Neither the intense heat nor gases emitted by the acid fumaroles facilitate the work of the scientists. The pumping system stops working, as their salinity reaches 50%! Video and photograph cameras, drone and scientific equipment resist nevertheless to the severity of the conditions.
The first microscope observations in the field seem promising!
The first results in the lab
Olivier meets with the scientific team a month later in front of a scanning electron microscope at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Jussieu, then in the laboratory at the Université Paris-Sud in Orsay, in the middle of test tubes. The scientific adventure is far from being finished. Samples are inoculated in culture media as an attempt to isolate extremophilic bacteria. The first DNA-based molecular analyses are conclusive: novel microbial lineages adapted to unique hypersaline conditions are identified. Will the microbiologists find also microbes being able to live in 50% saturated brines, at negative pH down to -1.55 and reaching sometimes temperatures close to 100°C?
The work has also already started at the Orsay University, where the first DNA-based molecular analyses are being carried out. There is excitement among microbiologists: the first extremophilic archaea and bacteria have just been found!
Once the film is finished, the analyses will still carry on for several years in Orsay, Jussieu, Brest and Madrid. This work will also be the subject of a PhD thesis.
Votre aide est précieuse. Elle nous permettra de finaliser un documentaire de qualité, véritable outil de sensibilisation pour inciter à la protection de Dallol et de le diffuser le plus largement possible, notamment sur grand écran. Pour cela, il nous faut consacrer plus de temps au montage, à l’étalonnage et au mixage, éléments essentiels pour une diffusion spectaculaire.
The documentary underway
January 2016: the images are filmed in Dallol.
March-April: laboratory images are filmed in Paris and Orsay.
May 9: start of the film production, partially funded by the production company Camera Lucida. Two TV channels, Ushuaia TV and TV5 Monde, join the film project. However, as the economy in the documentary industry is limited, we need you to co-fund this ambitious project.
Your contribution will be precious. It will help us finish a documentary of high standards, which will be used as an awareness-raising tool to encourage the protection of Dallol. To do so, we need to dedicate more time to editing, colour grading the film and mixing, all of which are essential elements for a spectacular broadcast.
A priority: protecting Dallol
The association ‘Aux Origines du Monde’ aims at unveiling the originality of the Dallol hydrothermal site. It also wishes to promote Dallol not only as a source of knowledge and a unique geological and biological system, but also as a site filled with beauty.
The nomination of Dallol as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has become a dream for all the members of the association! For our microbiologists of the extreme, Purificación and David, the protection of Dallol is also a great scientific challenge.
"Being interested in the limits of life on Earth also implies asking about life's origins"
they say. If we identify novel organisms living under these conditions, we will be able to push further the known limits of life on Earth. We will also be closer to decipher the physico-chemical range of conditions within which life evolved when the Earth was still very hot and rich in hydrothermal activity. And, why not, contemplate life on exoplanets with conditions similar to those of Dallol."
THE MEMBERS OF THE DALLOL EXPEDITION
The film crew
An independent photographer for the last 30 years, Olivier Grunewald is passionate about landscapes and exceptional light. Author of 15 illustrated books, he has received 4 World Press Photo awards. He has also directed two documentaries, both produced by Camera Lucida, "Kawa Ijen, the mystery of the blue flames" and "Nyiragongo, journeys to the center of the world".
In his films, his ambition has always been to convey as accurately as possible the unique spirit of scientific expeditions, the passion of its participants as well as to celebrate the beauty of an exceptional place.
As Olivier flew his drone, Fabrice Digonnet, geologist, volcanologist and manager of the blog Culture Volcan, took control of the camera. Jacques Barthélémy, a philosopher and mathematician who became a mountain professional and led many expeditions, helped them with good humor and solid technical skills.
For a perfect immersion in the strange universe of Dallol, Frédéric Commeaut, a sound engineer with 18 years of experience in films and mixing, built with patience and good temper a rare complicity with the interviewed scientists in the middle of acid gases and dreadful heat.
Luigi Cantamessa, historian, philosopher and founder of the Volcanological Society of Geneva has been a key intermediate between the Afar authorities and the expedition team, taking care of logistics on site. For the last 25 years, he has organized numerous scientific and cultural expeditions in Ethiopia, in particular in the Afar region. He also founded Géo-Découverte in Geneva, and Chorra Tours in Addis Abeba.
The scientific team
"We are naturalists of the microbial world"
Purificación López-García, the head of the scientific team, co-founded with David Moreira the research team 'Microbial diversity, ecology and evolution', with a special focus on extreme environments, at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), Université Paris-Sud. Passion and profession both led Purificación and David to the alkaline crater lakes of Mexico or the "salares" of the Atacama desert in Chile.
In their team, Ludwig Jardiller, a microbial ecologist, measured the physico-chemical parameters: temperature, pH, salinity, dissolved oxygen concentration. None of the acid ponds escaped the sampling of Ana Isabel López-Archilla, a biologist working at the Ecology Department of the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain, in close collaboration with Purificación.
Also from Spain, José María López-García, a geologist and hydrologist working as research engineer at the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain (Instituto Géologico y Minero de España), explored thoroughly the geology of the zone. He was also in charge of geo-referencing all the samples.
Juan Manuel García-Ruiz, a geologist and chemist, director of the CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) in Granada, Spain, is well known, among other things, for his work in the cave of the giant crystals of Naica, Mexico. He spends his time observing the crystallization of salt and minerals, and looks for potential traces of microorganisms (biosignatures) through the degradation or the facilitation of crystal formation.
Production and editing of the film
Created more than fifteen years ago, Camera Lucida has a clearly identifiable editorial line, focusing on cultural topics and working in close collaboration with authors and directors. The producer Sylvie Gautier encouraged Olivier Grunewald to make his first documentary "Kawa Ijen, the mystery of the blue flames", co-directed with Régis Etienne. A collaboration renewed one year later with the film "Nyiragongo, journeys to the center of the world".
Agathe Cauvin will edit the documentary. She is a passionate cinema assistant who has worked with Costa Gavras, Mathieu Kassovitz and Dominique Moll. Since 2003, Agathe has edited several feature films for the cinema, several documentaries for television as well as Olivier’s first film.
A committed partner
The Fondation IRIS is a private foundation under the aegis of the Fondation de France. Created in December 2012, its objective is to promote environment preservation. The Fondation IRIS supports actions undertaken to preserve or restore fragile natural or heritage sites and to prevent biodiversity loss in different environments (terrestrial, marine, lacustrine, peri-urban...). IRIS has supported the scientific adventure in Dallol in order to raise awareness regarding the necessary preservation of the site.
THE ONLY THING MISSING IS YOU
We now need to face the film postproduction costs.
Help us to turn this film into an awareness-raising tool of high standards that will be invaluable to spread our message!
Being able to publicize the film among different environmental policy makers in Ethiopia could potentially have a strong impact on their decision and could also encourage them to campaign for the acknowledgement of Dallol as a natural site of primary importance.