African rift: Massive crack could split the continent in half • Earth.com
African rift
07-09-2023

African rift: Massive crack could split the continent in half

A colossal fissure tearing through the southeastern part of Africa might be an omen of a geographical shift, according to recent scientific observations. 

This gigantic rupture, approximately 2,000 miles long, has been slowly stretching wider by about an inch each year, and may eventually divide the African continent in two, leading to the formation of Earth’s sixth ocean.

Countries nestled along the southeastern seaboard of Africa, stretching from Ethiopia to Mozambique, could end up as part of a gargantuan island, paving the way for a fresh, vast expanse of sea. 

Eastern African Rift (EARS)

This geographical phenomenon, known as the Eastern African Rift (EARS), is believed to have initiated around 22 million years ago. However, a significant surge of activity over the past few decades has spurred a renewed scientific interest.

In 2005, a noticeable crack emerged in the deserts of Ethiopia. This apparent manifestation of the ongoing tectonic process has been expanding at a rate of an inch per year. 

The Eastern African Rift is a consequence of two tectonic plates – the Somali plate in the east and the Nubian plate in the west – slowly drifting apart. Although this has been known, the precise mechanisms behind this tectonic separation remained a mystery until recently.

When will the continent split?

A study released in June proposed that the rift is being propelled by a massive ejection of super-heated rock, originating from the planet’s core. 

Despite this startling discovery, it’s crucial to note that Africa is not expected to sever completely for at least another five million years. Once the split does occur, Somalia and parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania will form a new continent.

“What we do not know is if this rifting will continue on its present pace to eventually open up an ocean basin, like the Red Sea, and then later to something much larger, like a small version of the Atlantic Ocean,” said Ken Macdonald, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Or might it speed up and get there more quickly? Or it might stall out, as the Atlantic did before it commenced to true seafloor spreading? At the present rate, a sea about the size of the current Red Sea might form in about 20-30 million years.”

New cracks are appearing

Geologists have been monitoring the appearance of new cracks indicative of this ongoing shift. For instance, a 35-mile fissure that emerged in 2005 already suggests the formation of a new sea near Ethiopia. 

Furthermore, a separate fissure tore through Kenya in 2018 after heavy rainfall, prompting evacuations and causing disruption to roadways. Macdonald believes that more such cracks will continue to appear due to the action of the Eastern African Rift.

The 2018 crack, according to Geologist David Adede, was originally filled with volcanic ash. However, the intense rainfall washed away the material, revealing the underlying fissure. While the process was gradual, some locals reported feeling the ground shake, making the situation seem abrupt and swift.

Researchers have hypothesized that the expansion of EARS is due to the Somali and Nubian tectonic plates drifting apart, a notion confirmed by a 2004 study conducted by researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. 

The Eastern African Rift, stretching from the Gulf of Aden in the north to Zimbabwe in the south, is a complex system of deep valleys, steep escarpments, and volcanic peaks. It represents an ongoing process of continental rifting, wherein Earth’s crust is gradually pulled apart.

What is driving the rift?

The Geological Society of London suggests that this tectonic phenomenon could be due to the heat flow from the asthenosphere, the hotter, weaker, upper part of Earth’s mantle between Kenya and Ethiopia. 

Confirming this hypothesis, a recent study from Virginia Tech employed 3D simulations and discovered that the rift was indeed being driven by the so-called African Superplume, which was responsible for the unusual deformations beneath the system.

Geophysicist D. Sarah Stamps explained the different deformation styles of a rifting continent using an easy-to-understand analogy: “If you hit Silly Putty with a hammer, it can actually crack and break. But if you slowly pull it apart, the Silly Putty stretches. So on different time scales, Earth’s lithosphere behaves in different ways.”

Tahiry Rajaonarison, a postdoctoral researcher at New Mexico Tech, added, “We confirmed previous ideas that lithospheric buoyancy forces are driving the rift, but we’re bringing new insight that anomalous deformation can happen in East Africa.”

The debate continues

As scientists continue to investigate these geographical phenomena, the 2018 crack continues to spark debate within the scientific community. While some believe it’s a real-time indication of continental separation, others contend that such rapid progression is highly unlikely. 

Amid this scientific discourse, people like Eliud Njoroge Mbugua, a local resident, bear the brunt of these geological upheavals. Mbugua claimed to have witnessed the crack splitting his home, and he barely managed to gather some of his possessions before his house collapsed.

For now, the future course of the African continent’s tectonic journey remains a matter of speculation and scientific discovery.

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