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Vent in the Earth's crust in the Afar Depression, north-east Ethiopia

Views from Afar

A team of seismologists is in the field in Ethiopia's Afar region to monitor the birth of a new sea, as Africa slowly splits apart amid earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Watch this space for updates on the team's progress.

If you spend a lot of time following the NERC funding stream, or more particularly the Earth Science funding in the UK - come on, there must be one or two! - then you will be aware that a large consortium project is researching rifting in Ethiopia.

This blog is being written to let you know what we get up to in the field. We'll be updating it as much as possible - funnily enough, internet access is not extensive in the Afar desert. So, watch this space, and satellite phone permitting you should be able to follow the thrills and spills of a seismological field campaign in Ethiopia.

The last word

James Hammond

James Hammond

James Hammond

Well, we are all back in the UK, arriving yesterday evening. It has been an exhausting but very successful trip. The only major problem we faced (except the Ethiopian cheese) was the corrupt data at 3 stations. Hopefully the data can be retrieved as promised by the manufacturer.

None of this would have been possible without a lot of help and so we would like to thank:

  • All at the Geophysical observatory, Addis Ababa University, in particular Elias Lewi.
  • Dereje at Ethio-Der for supplying us with great cars once again.
  • Both drivers Eyaya and Teddy, the hardest-working people on the trip.
  • All the numerous guards at our stations, and police guards who accompanied us in Afar.

Once again the stations were in great condition. I am sure there are many people left off and I apologise for that, but everyone we met made for a great trip, both as scientists and tourists.

So it comes to an end, at least till March when the fun begins again for the next service run...

Posted on 23 October 2008 | Comments (3)

Day 20, sweet home Addis Ababa

James Hammond

Drinking tej

Drinking tej.

We have finished! All stations have been serviced, everything is working and the exhausted, but happy team is back in Addis. All we have to do is back-up data, pack our kit away and relax before we fly back to the UK on Wednesday. The last couple of days have gone fairly smoothly, let me fill you in.

Breaking news update

The seismicity seems to have stopped, lasting a little over a day. It is still unclear what has happened as Afar officials say they did not feel anything, even though the earthquakes seemed quite big. When we get our data back to the UK/US we should have a better understanding of the situation...

Posted on 19 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Day 19, almost there

James Hammond

Looking down into the rift

At the 'Afar window'- on top of the border fault, looking down into the rift

The last push began at 6.00am, and a 3 hour drive to Akesta, our western-most station. This takes us to elevations of 3700m though stunning scenery. We arrived to find everything in working order, and so headed back on the same road to Dessie, arriving around mid-day.

Again, to get more data to analyse the recent seismicity we serviced Dese station again, then headed to our final station Kare Kore. This station is in an important location as it is co-located with an EAGLE station, an older seismic experiment in Ethiopia.

By doing this we should be able to incorporate all the data into one array. Everything seemed ok, but on analysis of the seismograms we seem to have lost 10 days of data. After discussion with the local people it turns out that almost the whole of August saw a blanket of fog cover the area so our solar panel could not charge the battery.

All in all it seems that 10 days is the only data we have lost for all stations in the whole period from March to now, an amazing achievement. So in celebratory mood we consumed a few beers and slept well, looking forward to arriving in Addis the next day.

Posted on 18 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Day 18, back to work

James Hammond

After our day off in Lalibela it was back to business as usual. After the previous day's excesses tasting a variety of local brews, I surprisingly felt pretty good. We got on the road at 5.30am, heading to Gashena, one of two stations we have above 3000m.

In stark contrast to Afar we we're all wrapped up in fleeces and woolly hats (even though the temperature is a balmy 17°C, it looks like we have acclimatised to the hot temperatures). This station is located in a school which has been built by the local community to avoid a 10km walk for the village children. As a result it does not receive much money from the government.

 Lalibela House

Lalibela house.

When we came in March we purchased 10 benches for the school, and it was great to see these being used in the classrooms. They were presented in a ceremony and toasted with coca cola and ambasha (a type of bread). As the benches worked well we have purchased 10 much bigger benches which we hope to see on our next visit.

However, the school now has enough benches and they have asked us to bring books with us next time to furnish their new library. So, a small appeal, if anyone wants to donate books for the next service run in March (text books, fiction, non-fiction, anything) then send them to me and I will make sure they go to the school:

James Hammond
Department of Earth Science
University of Bristol
Wills Memorial Building
Queens Road

The station was working well, and so we headed off to our next station Kobo. We have visited this before, but decided to download more data due to the recent seismicity in the area. Everything went smoothly and after a drink and chat with the school director we head back to Dessie via Wuchale, another station in a school, another station working well. We arrived in Dese, with the comforting thought that the next day is the last working day.

Posted on 17 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Day 17, tourists for the day

James Hammond

As was mentioned previously Lorraine and Mariangela went to see the main churches and I went to visit some churches out of town. As a result we have a blog in two parts.

Lorraine and Mariangela

We started the day with bread and local honey - Lalibela means 'honey eater' - very good! We had eleven churches to see, all of them hewn from the solid rock, starting at the top and working downwards - quite a feat!

Priest at Lalibela church

Priest at Lalibela Church.

They were all built during King Lalibela's reign, after he had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He came home and decided he would build the second Jerusalem here in Ethiopia, to save the pilgrims the long and dangerous journey to the Holy Land. The rock here is a volcanic tuff, so it is quite soft and relatively easy to carve, but strong enough to withstand the centuries. Many of the floors and steps are polished with the patina of a thousand pilgrim's feet.

Even today, the Lalibela churches are still the focus of many a pilgrimage, and it is heartbreaking to see so many desperate beggars around the area. Our favourite bits were the tunnel from hell to heaven - the first part is in total absolute darkness - you have to feel your way through, and then, slowly a feint light appears, which is supposed to represent the entry into heaven, as you emerge in front of another church.

The church called St George was also another favourite - this is built in the shape of a cross and you approach it on same level as the roof - it suddenly appears in the rock surface in front of you. If this was in the UK there would be safety barriers all around - it was great to be able to see it as it was when it was originally carved out. The churches are very plain inside for the most part - only a couple have frescos.

St George (Giorgis) Church

St George (Giorgis) Church.

Also interesting here are the old traditional houses. These are two story round constructions, built of the waste stone excavated from around the churches, and thatched. One family has the upper room and one the lower. The upper floor is reached by steps which curl around the outside.

They remind us of windmills at home, but without the sails. They are very cool inside, and apparently you do not hear the high winds which are common here. They have been passed from generation to generation, so are very old, but understandably, younger people today want to move into modern constructed homes which have plumbing and more than one room!

As we are both feeling human again, having been ill over the past few days, we are looking forward to the local speciality tonight - arrosto, which is roast lamb and wonderful little fried dumplings - Yum!


I went to visit Yemrehanna Kristos, a 1.5hr drive from Lalibela. It differs from most of the Lalibela churches as it is built from Marble and Olive wood in a cave, rather than being carved out of rock. What makes this church special is that it is older than the Lalibela churches, built in the late 10th century.

Drinking Kerefe with Shamble Casa

Drinking Kerefe with Shamble Casa.

The church is beautiful, but the main feature is the 5000 mummified skeletons which come from pilgrims who come to die at the church. These are mainly exposed at the rear of the cave, but occasionally you see a skull or bones sticking out of the ground around your feet.

After visiting the church, Eyaya had a gift for me, a glass of Kerafe. This is a locally brewed drink made from fermenting barley. Sounds nice, but it is a murky brown colour with a frothy head containing lots of pieces of who knows what. I managed to drink the glass, and then found another treat waiting for me. Our guide, Shamble Casa, invited us to a cousins house in the village to try some of the local cheese.

We made our way up the hill to a mud hut where I was given a large cup which was filled with the 'cheese'. Ethiopian cheese is not how you imagine cheese to be. Milk is taken straight from the cow and left to sit for 2 days until it is ripe, then it is ready to be drunk. I took my curdled milk and tried to drink, managing about 1/5 of the cup.

House where cheese was drunk

House where cheese was drunk.

Noticing my difficulty holding it down it was decided that it might help if the cheese was mixed with burberry, the local spice. I know had a cup of spicy curdled milk, as you imagine it did not help much, I managed to drink about a quarter of the cup (about 1/2 a pint by my estimation) before the locals took pity and relieved me of my cup.

Tonight we get to try another local speciality, Tej, a honey based wine. After today my stomach will not know what is going on, but as they say, when in Rome...

Breaking news

We have just heard from Manahloh, who is back in the capital Addis Ababa, that the Addis seismometer is recording large amounts of seismicity near Ado Ale, in the middle of the segment. This is where many dike injections have taken place. At this stage we do not know what is happening, Afar officials are being contacted. Unfortunately we are far from the volcano in the highlands, one week earlier and we would have had front row seats. However, as we have just serviced our stations we should have a fully working array to analyse the event in detail.

Posted on 16 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Day 16, ...and relax...

James Hammond

Flood basalts

Ethiopian flood basalts.

Eyaya was the only person working today. We drove nine hours from Axum to Lalibela. It is a stunning drive, taking the rough back road. Hardly any cars use this road - we only encountered three (and one motorbike) - but the scenery is beautiful. We drive through stunning limestone and sandstone outcrops, finally driving through the Ethiopian flood basalts. These were emplaced in massive volcanic eruptions at the onset of rifting.

What is great is that it is possible to see dikes and sills that have been emplaced (these occur where magma intrudes into the rock, breaking it apart. It is great to see as this is what is happening in Afar, the main focus of our experiment). We did service two stations, one in a hospital in Sekota and one in Lalibela, both are working fine.

Tomorrow we have a day off to visit the amazing rock hewn churches here in Lalibela. As I have been here twice before we are splitting up and Mariangela and Lorraine are visiting the main churches, and I will head to some different churches on the outskirts. I'm sure we will both have stories to tell so watch this space.

Posted on 15 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Day 15, taking in the sights

James Hammond


Scenery on the drive from Axum.

We left Mekele to travel to Axum where we enjoyed our first afternoon off on this trip. On the way we serviced our northernmost station, Abi Adi - everything is working well.

Axum is a historically important site in Ethiopia where the Axumite civilisation was based which ruled over large parts of Africa and Asia from around 600BC until around 900AD. Some ruins have been uncovered here, some linked to the Queen of Sheba in 1000BC, and some more recent.

The most spectacular are the Stella (not related to the beer). These are large free-standing obelisks, the largest 30ft tall (one was bigger but it has fallen, and it is not clear if it was ever erected). What is spectacular about this region is that artefacts recovered from the ruins are almost identical to those used by rural Ethiopians today. It shows that farming, the food they eat and the way of life here has not changed for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Posted on 14 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Day 14, feeling hot hot hot

James Hammond

We drove the three and a half hours, on rough roads to Berhale, our last venture into Afar. This is the road to the hot springs at Dallol, and the salt mines in the Danakil depression. Unfortunately for time and security reasons we can not visit these places. We arrived at around 10am, hoping to avoid the worst of the heat, but as mentioned before we were anticipating problems at this station.

The Sekota station

Servicing the Sekota station.

These problems manifested themselves and the data seems corrupted. On advice from the seismometer manufacturer we spent a long time making sure we downloaded all this corrupt data; they have assured us they will manage to save it when we get back. Unfortunately this took us into the mid-day sun, where temperatures were 48°C in the shade. On top of this Lorraine and Eyaya were not feeling great, so heads were low.

To pick ourselves up, while the station was trying to find GPS signal (another problem!) we went for a cold drink in the village nearby. I have been to this village twice in the last 8 months, and so bought some pictures I had taken previously with me to hand out. This caused great amusement at the restaurant, resulting in the subject of the picture inviting us for a coffee ceremony. As Ethiopia is the home of coffee and with nothing better to do we jumped at the chance.

An Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a great spectacle. It can take up to 45 minutes to get a cup of coffee (or buna in Amharic). First they roast the green coffee beans over an open fire. These are then crushed in a pot to make the ground coffee. Next these are placed in a pot and boiled with water, which is then left to settle, and then poured. And, as long as you stop them pouring half a bag of sugar in the cup, it tastes great.

Suitably refreshed we headed back to the site, which was still not working. A quick fiddle with the cables (i.e., the age old solution of turning it off then on again) paid dividends and we were on our way home. As we climbed the temperature dropped and spirits rose, glad to back in the cool fresh highlands.

Posted on 13 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Day 13, unlucky for some!

James Hammond


The town of Abala.

As we are staying in Mekele I thought we would make use of the facilities, so you are getting two blogs in two days, aren't you lucky!

Firstly I think it is about time that we bring you up to date with our progress and fill you in on some details of what we are doing.

Firstly, I am going to be a little technical - it will help with the later entry, so please bear with me. At each site the seismometer is buried in the ground in a hole about a metre deep; nearby is a bucket containing the battery and all the cables. Leading out of this bucket is the solar panel (to keep the battery charged) and GPS cables (for accurate timing). The solar panel and GPS are located nearby on a wooden post with a clear view of the sky.

By and large the stations have been working well. We have serviced 18 stations and 15 have had no problems. The major problem we are having is that 3 new stations that we deployed in May have software issues. They seem to be working, but the data is corrupted. Our colleagues at SEIS-UK, University of Leicester are working on a solution which hopefully we will have tonight (we visit our last new station tomorrow).

So on to today's developments...

Today was meant to be an easy day, we even allowed ourselves a lie in, only leaving the hotel at 7.30 instead of the usual sunrise. First order of the day was a brief sojourn back into Afar, visiting a town called Abala. About an hour's drive past stunning limestone outcrops we dropped about 1km in elevation and arrived at the site.

Limestone house

A limestone house in Tigray.

The great thing about the limestone is that it falls off the cliffs in rectangular blocks, thus making natural bricks. As a result the houses blend in perfectly with the surroundings. All was well at the station and we left an hour later. The data at this station will be very interesting as the locals reported that they have felt earthquakes in the last month.

So on to our only other station for the day, a two-hour drive back in to the highlands to a town called Semre. This is in the heart of Tigray and thus a stark contrast to Afar. In the past we have had problems with termites at this station so the mood was apprehensive - would we find our solar panel still standing? As we pulled up to the station, located in a secondary school, we saw the panel standing tall, everything looked good. However, we then opened the box containing the cables; it was full to the top with wet mud. In theory, our stations can work submerged in water, but I emphasise the word theory. So, with a heavy heart we tested the battery voltage ... 13.4V.

Unbelievable, it has power! However, chances are the station is not working, water in the connectors. So I connected the palm, the way we communicate with the station, and would you believe that everything was working, and working well!


Locals working in the fields.

We then began the process of digging out the mud, only to find that all our plastic bags, used to cover the cables and battery had disappeared - very strange. Then we saw our cables, almost every one had had the casing completely removed, all that was left was the bare, live wires.

It started to make sense, a rodent had set up house in our box and preceded to feast on everything. The amazing thing is that it stopped every time it got to the bare wires, and so the station was still working. One wrong chew and it would have been game over, for our station and probably the mouse.

A 30 minute job had now become a four hour job. We carefully removed the power, and spent the next few hours changing all the cables, a lot of work. To make matters worse, while digging up the seismometer we came across two scorpions - that makes five for the trip. We left with everything working, and hopefully mouse-proof. A tired, but happy car headed back to Mekele.

Posted on 12 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Out of Afar

James Hammond

Afar landscape

A greener landscape in the Afar highlands.

We are posting this entry in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region. We left Afar, climbing 1.5km entering Wollo part of the Amhara region, spending a night in Waldiya (in the dark due to power cuts). As a result everything has changed, culture, the people, the language (in the past 2 days we have been speaking four languages - Afari, Amharic, English and now Tigrinia, however we get off lightly, there are over 80 languages in Ethiopia!).

It is such a striking change from Afar, not only the temperature, but everything here is green. Farming is so important in Ethiopia, and if there is an available piece of land it will be used. As a result the landscape has turned from dusty plains in Afar to a whole mix of colours in the highlands. The crops look good, and the people seem happy. We have serviced a few stations and things are going well. Hopefully it's plain sailing from here ... (fingers tightly crossed!).

Posted on 11 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Lucky escape

James Hammond

Off-roading in Afar

Early start - no-one had a great night's sleep as the wild dogs decided to bark and fight outside almost all night!

Huge puddles all around Chifra - there was a lot of rain last night, if this had happened a day earlier we would definitely have been stuck.

A long drive through sunrise eventually brought us back to Harsis, where the US team needed to remove their solar panel to replace that at the Loggia Dam Site.

After around 4 hours of driving, we reached Loggia and breakfast, before saying goodbye to Osman. The two teams then split - the US to the dam site, and the UK team back to Asayita.

Posted on 10 October 2008 | Comments (0)

The perfect storm

James Hammond

Sunrise at Chifra

Sunrise at Chifra.

We all headed off to Teru, about an hour's drive across lava flows. Teru is the administrative centre of this region, and a real wild west frontier town. Here Manahloh and co, picked up a local guide and headed off to Barantu to service a US station. Lorraine and Osman stayed to discuss plans with the officials, covering issues like safety, accessibility and guides.

A recent article by Cherry Lewis in the Bristol staff magazine 'Re:search' covered the project in Afar, and had photographs from last season's fieldwork. We had brought some copies with us - the officials were very excited about this - not only does it show that the Afar region is being publicised, unknown to us, one of the photographs was of the Chief's daughter!

He asked us to bring copies of the photographs on our next visit. As Osman and Lorraine waited for the others to return, they noticed the magazine being passed around the town causing great excitement (the cover photograph was of a Teru resident, Kazim). This would be the main topic of discussion in the town all day!

All went well at Barantu, although the amount of dust in the area meant the team returned to Teru very grubby! Ominous clouds had started gathering, so we decided to head off back to Awra as quickly as possible - the rain came upon us at Digdigga.

However, we managed to make it back to Awra without too much difficulty - too much rain and the road becomes impassable for a week - something all of us wanted to avoid. By the time we had made it across the plain, the rain had stopped and we had made it across without either car getting stuck in the mud!

House at Chifra

Our 'hotel' comprised of corrugated iron sheds.

Back at Awra, we met with the Chief. They had the frame and the GPS antenna, but no news of the solar panel. We decided to use the spare panel and set up the station again.

The Chief found us a new guard, and assured us he would continue to hunt for the solar panel. We set off for Chifra as the light was getting low. Chifra is where we leave the dust tracks and reach a road - not quite tarmac, but of sufficient construction to ensure we wont be stuck for a week!

We made Chifra as the light faded and the rains started. Our 'hotel' comprised of corrugated iron sheds, each with a red light that you couldn't turn off - but for 80p a night you can't complain!

Posted on 9 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Digging Digdigga

James Hammond

Our day didn't start too well, with James discovering a problem with the Asayita data. This meant a change of plans - we have to return to Semera after our trip to Teru rather than heading off into the highlands.

We picked up Osman Tajuddin from the Ministry of Mines. He had accompanied the petrology team on our field trip to Dabbahu volcano in Jan 08, and would act as interpreter at our meetings with the Administration in Teru. Apart from servicing the US team's seismometers along the route to Teru, the purpose of this leg of the journey is for discussion of the petrology team's fieldwork plans for Feb 09.

House at Digdigga

A house in Digdigga made of wood and tarpaulins.

Unfortunately the jinx we have been experiencing reared its head again at Awra, with the theft of the solar panel, frame and GPS antenna. The elders asked us to stop to talk with them on our return journey. They would have 'dagu' - the Afari means of finding our information via discussion - to see what they could determine about the theft.

With nothing more to be done at this stage, we headed north on the long journey to Digdigga, a small village in the middle of a large dusty plain. Except this time it wasn't just a dust plain - the most extraordinary sight awaited us - a huge meadow of yellow flowers! There had been a huge rainstorm two days previously which had flooded the plain and the flowers had sprung out of nowhere.

Things at the Digdigga station were more successful, with the station intact. The school were the station is located is being used as a base camp for Medecine Sans Frontiers. They are looking primarily at malnutrition in women and children. We are hoping the big generator they are running will not affect the data collected by this station.

We spent the night at Ishmael's, a house in Digdigga made of wood and tarpaulins, sharing our room with two baby calves, who chose to relieve themselves on a regular basis!

Posted on 8 October 2008 | Comments (0)

The calm before the storm

James Hammond

Sorry folks for the long delay in writing, we have been busy, and the absence of internet coupled with power cuts has hampered our efforts.

When we last wrote we were relaxing at a Chinese road camp in the air conditioning, trying to acclimatise to the cold temperatures (even though the temperature in the rooms was 25°C we were all wrapped up in our sleeping bags). Anyway, we have since been on another off-road trip, more details below.

Just to fill you in, we drove back to Semera and stayed near the main roads for another day, servicing easy(ish) stations and encountering the usual problems, most of which are fixed, and trying to catch up on sleep before the next adventure.

On the morning of the 8th we set off into the back country, and as myself and Mariangela were tourists for this part of the trip it has been left to Lorraine to report on the details...

Posted on 7 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Trouble in paradise

James Hammond

We left you at the Chinese road camp with everything going well. Of course, this was never going to last...

Minutes after I sent the last blog we were engulfed in a huge sandstorm. Work on the US station ceased and we sat it out, however with large sandstorms it is usually inevitable that rain has fallen somewhere. This is a big problem as the road to Erte Ale is over sand, which turns to mud with the smallest amount of rain.

With that thought in our heads we headed to Afdera, a salt mining town reminiscent of a frontier Wild West town. On our way our fears were realised as we witnessed a waterfall in one of the hottest, driest places on earth. It didn't look good.

Anyway, we decided to try the road, so met with the regional officials who arranged a guide to take us to Kuso Wad, the small village (one permanent house where Gilsa, the chief, lives) which houses our seismic station. With heavy hearts we went to bed, sleeping in the car park (it is far too hot in the corrugated iron rooms).

Car stuck in mud

Getting stuck in the mud on the way to Kuso Wad.

The next morning we set off to Kuso Wad. The plan being that we would arrive at the station in the morning, service it, then spend the night at the volcano, travelling back to Afdera the following day. It started well, the first 30km were dry or over lava flows and we made good progress. We then started to see puddles, one of which trapped Eyaya's car, but with a quick pull from Teddy's car we were free and on our way... for about another 3km and Teddy's car literally sunk in the mud.

Three hours of digging and collecting rocks in the midday sun and we were on our way again. Next it was Eyaya's turn, just 1km from our destination and the car again sunk in a flash flood river channel. Luckily being so close to Kuso Wad we had a large number of volunteers to dig and push the car, taking a mere 2 hours. An exhausted team got back in the cars to drive the final few minutes to camp, when disaster - Eyaya drove into a different patch of mud, and we started again.

Taking pity on the Ferenji we were driven to Gilsa's house to rest while the Afar, the drivers and Manahloh managed to rescue the car, again. By the time they arrived at Gilsa's house we had serviced the station, and obviously our bad luck had not given up as the station had only recorded 13 days from the last 5 months. After discussions with our UK counterparts we decided to replace the seismometer with our spare the following morning. At least all our efforts were worth it - hopefully the station is now working.


Gilsa at his house.

It was now beginning to get dark, and it was obvious that we would not be going to the volcano, as even if we had time everyone was exhausted and the road is just as bad as the one we had driven, so the decision was made that we would sleep at Gilsa's house and drive back to Afdera in the morning.

This was fine, except for one thing - if it rained we would be stuck with Gilsa for around 7 days, the time it takes the mud to dry. So praying that the weather remained dry we set up camp on the ground outside Gilsa's house and tried to sleep. Of course, carrying on the theme of the day, just as we lay down a scorpion decided to chase around the camp until Teddy, armed with only a flip-flop, managed to save us. Still it meant a very bad nights sleep for all.

Morning arrived and Temesgen (thanks to God), no rain. So we replaced the sensor before the sun came up (a lot easier to dig), and after allowing Gilsa the use of our sat phone, we headed to Afdera, carrying some Afar hitchhikers on the way. Of course, knowing where the trouble spots were (and surely our bad luck has run out), we made it back in a mere 2 hours, the trip yesterday had taken 9 hours to travel 50km!

So we are back at the Chinese road camp, and they have offered us the use of their air conditioned guest house with wireless internet and cold showers. How can you say no to that!

Posted on 5 October 2008 | Comments (0)

On the road to Afar

James Hammond

I'm writing this on the road to Harar. As you can guess we got out of Addis without incident. Our customs problems were resolved surprisingly easily and the cars were loaded yesterday allowing us to set off early this morning.

This allowed us to visit the Eid celebrations yesterday. The focus of the festival was the stadium where most of Addis Ababa's Muslims gathered to pray in the morning (Addis is roughly 50/50 Muslim/Christian, a mix that works with very little problem). For obvious reasons Mariangela, Lorraine and I could not get too close, but watching the procession of people singing and dancing their way to prayer was a great sight.

The evening was spent having our last taste of 'Feranji' (Foreigner) food, as for the next three weeks we will be eating at local cafes where the menu rarely deviates from Shiro (a bean paste mixed with the spice burberry) and tibs (fried goat) all served on injera, a pancake-like bread made from locally grown teff, which serves as food, plate and cutlery.

Camels by an Ethiopian roadside

Camels by an Ethiopian roadside

This morning we met with Manahloh Belachew, a PhD student from Rochester University, USA and our two drivers, Teddy and Eyaya.

It was decided we would split into two groups. Manahloh, Lorraine and Teddy headed straight to Semera, the capital of Afar to meet with the government officials.

This is necessary to discuss safety, future trips and to hire our guards for the trip. Afar has had security problems in the past and so police guards travel with us while we are in the area.

Mariangela, Eyaya and I headed to Harar to service 4 seismic stations and we will travel to Semera tomorrow and meet up with the others.

Our first station was in the town of Awash, the southernmost tip of Afar. Earlier this year a swarm of earthquakes occurred at a nearby volcano, so data from this station was very important. On arrival the station seemed fine until we tried to retrieve the data and found a damaged cable. Obviously we have replacements and it is now working fine (although digging up the instrument in the midday sun is not much fun). The second station of Mieso is in the Somali region, and thus a very colourful place during this Muslim festival. Everyone is dressed in their most colourful clothes making a great sight. To make matters even better the station is working fine.

We are now driving to the third station, and should make Harar before dark when it is not safe to drive.

So far so good...

Update: Sorry folks, this blog is a couple of days old as we are having internet problems. All stations have been fine, except one of the US stations which was vandalised; hopefully we will get this up and running again, with better security. We are now in a Chinese road camp on the way to the lava lake, Erte Ale. The cars are full with the 6 of us and two guard; it is 45°C and rising. Everyone is healthy and looking forward to the trip. Hopefully we can blog again and let you know how we got on in a couple of days - no guarantees though.

Posted on 3 October 2008 | Comments (0)

Day 1

James Hammond

Arriving in Addis Ababa straight off the red-eye from Heathrow we looked forward to an easy day acclimatising to the heat and altitude (Addis is 2500m high). However, we soon found out that Eid, the festival celebrating the end of Ramadan, occurs tomorrow, a national holiday in Ethiopia. This meant we had just the single day to buy all our equipment, and wade through the bureaucracy at the university.

It started well with our spare seismometer being confiscated at the airport, only to be released on production of the right form, a work in progress.

To get things going Lorraine and Mariangela went shopping, hunting down batteries and various bits and pieces, driving all over Addis, honing those negotiating skills and getting everything on the list. A success!

I was left with the fun job of filling in forms and chasing signatures, but it looks like we are on track, and may, customs permitting, get to join in the Eid celebrations tomorrow. Then off to the field on Wednesday servicing a few seismometers and if we are lucky we can end the day feeding Hyenas in Harar.

Posted on 30 September 2008 | Comments (0)

In transit

James Hammond

James Hammond

James Hammond

First things first - as this is an introduction to the blog I feel we need some background info.

The continent of Africa is splitting in two along the East African rift valley, which over millions of years may lead to the formation of a new ocean. Typically this process is hard to see, being hidden under shallow seas or oceans. But in Afar we are fortunate enough to be able to walk on top of the region as it happens.

In September 2005, local people reported a series of earthquakes and ash darkening the sky for a period of three days. This was also recorded in Addis Ababa by seismologist Atalay Ayele who alerted scientists in the UK. He did this because UK scientists have been involved in the region since 2001, when a NERC-funded seismic array was deployed in the main Ethiopian rift.

Satellites recording in the area observed that nearby volcanoes subsided by three metres as magma was injected along a 60 kilometre-long fissure below the surface. This was measured to have pulled apart the crust by 8m, and caused the crust to drop 1m, the largest signal ever recorded directly.

An urgency team of seismologists and geodesists (part funded by NERC) deployed sensors to monitor the ongoing seismic activity and ground deformation, and noticed that these magmatic events and earthquakes never stopped, so a larger array of US and UK seismometers were deployed in March and October 2007 to monitor this unique event in more detail.

The seismology side of this project is just part of a much larger UK/US/Ethiopian collaboration which includes seismology, geochemistry, geodesy, petrology and much more.

The aim is to monitor the ongoing diking, but the large multi-disciplinary approach will also give us an unprecedented opportunity to image an actively rifting region, and further understand the rifting process.

Phew, the science bit is out of the way - there may be more, but only when relevant, I promise! I guess introductions are needed. The people you will be hearing from are James Hammond (me), Mariangela Guidarelli and Lorraine Field.

Also travelling with us will be Manahloh Belachew, a seismologist working at Rochester University in the US, our two drivers Teddy and Eyaya from Ethio-Der Tour and Travel, and local experts, guides and guards.

If previous campaigns are anything to go by we will encounter interesting locals, sandstorms, lava lakes and lots of camels. We'll drive around 6000km, climb elevations of 4000m, and descend into the hottest place on earth, 100m below sea level. So, watch this space.

Posted on 29 September 2008 | Comments (3)


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