Dramatic Geologic Activity in East Africa
A New Ocean Will Eventually Form as Tectonic Plates Split Apart
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The huge, brittle tectonic plates that make up Earth’s crust normally move only a few centimeters per year, not fast enough to be noticeable in a human lifetime. However, in the East African Rift Valley, this tectonic motion is happening with remarkable speed.
The East African Rift System
The East African Rift System is the most extensive continental rift zone on Earth, as well as one of the most active geologic regions. Stretching more than 6,000 km (3,700 miles), it begins in Lebanon and Syria to the north, proceeds along the Red Sea where it marks the boundary between the African and Arabian Plates, and continues through to Mozambique in the south.
The area of east Africa is defined by extremes. Volcanic activity along the Great Rift Valley has produced some of the world’s highest mountains, including Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, while the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia is one of the lowest points on the planet.
The Afar Triangle, which includes north-eastern Ethiopia, Djibouti and the southern Red Sea region of Eritrea, is the location of a tectonic triple junction where three tectonic plates meet. These three plates are moving away from each other due to an upwelling of magma from the mantle, which melts the crust and causes it to thin and pull apart. The phenomenon is similar to that which occurs at the mid-ocean ridges, where hot magma rises up and pushes the oceanic crust out to each side in the process of seafloor spreading, but it is rarely observed on Earth’s surface.
The African Plate is Tearing Apart, Forming a New Plate and Ocean Basin
Recent tectonic activity in the East African Rift Valley has created vast fissures where the African Plate is being split into two parts. The Nubian Plate that comprises most of the African continent, and the Somalian Plate, on the eastern coast, are moving in opposite directions at what is known as a divergent plate boundary. As the plates pull apart, a new ocean will eventually form, and the Horn of Africa will separate from the rest of the continent, becoming an island.
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The Horn of Africa is Becoming an Ocean
For the first time – humans were able to witness the birth of an ocean. Geologist Dereje Ayalew and his colleagues from Addis Ababa were the first to witness this up-to-the-minute experience. With a shake of the earth as soon as they arrived they were tempted to run back to the helicopter that had brought them there but in moments they were able to witness this horrific yet fascinating event. After a few moments, a dense crack in the earth appeared – an event that usually takes a lifetime to occur. This would be an amazing experience to view in a lifetime, it has been recently added to my “things to see in my lifetime” list.
“In north-eastern Africa’s Afar Triangle, though, recent months have seen hundreds of crevices splitting the desert floor and the ground has slumped by as much as 100 meters (328 feet). At the same time, scientists have observed magma rising from deep below as it begins to form what will eventually become a basalt ocean floor.”
“The process happening here is identical to that which created the Atlantic Ocean,” Parts of the region have sunk to nearly one-hundred meters below sea level.
The red sea will soon flood this crevice, and the scientists are able to unearth what is to be the floor of the newly forming ocean. The African and the Arabian plates meet at the Afar triangle and are considered to be the largest natural construction site on the planet. The event witnessed was the first visual proof of the formation. Now, this would have been something to witness.
Locals visit the site regularly and notice new cracks forming constantly. Also, fumes as hot as 400 degrees arising from the area accompanied by magma and sulfur. This is evident in the recent volcanic activity within the area. It won’t be a very long time until this area is flooded by the current red sea and becomes the youngest ocean