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An Enormous Crack In Africa Is Creating A New Ocean

by Meenal Bhatia
An Enormous Crack In Africa Is Creating A New Ocean

May 8, 2021

Remember the 20-foot wide crack in the Ethiopian desert in Africa?
Well, that might be turning into a new ocean! A 35-mile crack in Ethiopia’s desert will likely become a new ocean; eventually, researchers now confirm.

The crack, 20 feet wide in spots, began in 2005, and some geologists understood then that it would reproduce a new ocean. But that sense was questionable, and the rift had not been well studied.

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Dabbahu, a volcano at the northern end of the rift, erupted first, then magma pushed up through the middle of the rift area and began "unzipping" the rift in both directions

Crack In Africa: Not A New Phenomena

For millions of years, the Arabian plate has been moving away from Africa at the rate of one inch per year. This formed the Red Sea and Gulf of Adan between the two landmasses. Something similar is unfolding in Africa once again.

At present, the Somali plate is drifting away from the Nubian plate at a rate of 0.2 inches per year. Geologists studying this case believe that after a few million years, the African continent will split, leading to an ocean between the two new African landmasses.

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Approximate location of the East African Rift running along the eastern corridor of Africa. (ADAPTED FROM GOOGLE EARTH)

Relevance in the Atlantic Ocean

Breaking a continent in two is quite general. In fact, an African emperor might have even done it a couple of hundred years ago, figuratively. For instance, it led to the break of the Atlantic Ocean.

See how Africa and South America would fit flawlessly together because they were once one landmass, eventually sutured apart by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. While experts have known for a while about the rifting in Africa, the underlying cause has been hard to pin. Proof suggests it is due to a superplume upwelling along the eastern edge of Africa, figuratively “burning” a hole in Earth’s crust.

This superplume formed the East African Rift System (EARS), the system correlated with the African continent’s breakup. The East African Rift Valley, created as a result of the African continent’s continuing splitting, reaches more than 3,000 km from the Gulf of Aden to Zimbabwe.

The rifting, which started about 25 million years ago, will eventually create two separate continental masses associated with the Somalian and Nubian tectonic plates. However, the phenomenon will take millions of years at the current spreading rate of a few millimeters per year.

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Using newly gathered seismic data from 2005, researchers reconstructed the event to show the rift tore open along its entire 35-mile length in just days.

What does this tell us?

The crack that emerged amidst the desert in 2005 did not form gradually. While the constant movement of tectonic placements was recorded much below the surface of Earth, a sudden pressure relief requirement led to the crack’s occurrence.

This made some geologists think that the plate might be moving at a higher rate. Therefore, it can have a balloon effect on the landmass. Meaning, the pressure would keep building until the land would no longer be able to withstand it.

Just as a balloon would suddenly burst if the pressure is too high, some geologists expect the landmass to experience a literal ground-breaking reaction! This crack has elements from deep within the Earth – coming up to its opening and depositing at the crust. After analyzing the deposit composition, geologists found it to be similar to that of an oceanic crust.

Therefore, there is a high probability that an ocean would build up if and when the landmass separates.

We know that seafloor ridges are created by a similar intrusion of magma into a rift, but we never knew that a huge length of the ridge could break open at once like this.

- Cindy Ebinger, professor of earth and environmental sciences, University of Rochester

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