Nature

Africa Is Being Ripped Apart By a Gigantic New Ocean Forming Right Now

By Alex Conde - March 05, 2019
Credits: By Tiago Fioreze - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6111892

Earth Like You Never Knew It Before

Credits: The Horn of Africa jutting out into the Arabian as seen from space. Image: NASA

Country and political borders change all the time, but the actual physical layout of the planet is presumed to be constant, right? Well, the truth is a bit more complicated.

The surface of the Earth that we live and walk on — that green and brown stuff we see breaking up the vast blue patches in pictures of our globe taken from space — is in regular motion… it just moves so slowly that it rarely impacts anyone other than the scientists who study it.

The Ground Beneath Your Feet Is Always In Motion

Credits: What the planet looks like from the inside out. Image: Kelvinsong

The hard stuff up on the surface of the planet (the upper mantle and crust) is comprised of a relatively thin layer of moving parts called the lithosphere. Since the lithosphere isn’t a solid shell, its plates can shift around based on what happens around them.

For example, adjacent plates can slide alongside each other, causing earthquakes. Or volcanic eruptions along between tectonic plates can spew out magma, forcing them apart. This typically happens at the bottom of the ocean where the action isn’t particularly visible.

A Little Goes a Very Long Way Over Millions of Years

Credits: Magma helps make up the fiery furnace the Earth's crust keeps us from getting burned in.

Basically, we’re on continental-sized boats, floating on an ocean of lava.

While the exact speed at which the Earth’s plates move varies depending on the source, it’s usually only a handful of centimeters (or a couple of inches) each year. When you multiply that by a few million years, however, the appearance of the planet can change substantially.

So, what about this new ocean?

The Mother of All Continents

Credits: Pangea was a work in progress for what would become the continents as they are known today.

Ocean formation isn’t anything new, but to tell this story properly, we should look back to the beginning of things—enter the supercontinent of Pangea.

Basically, you wouldn’t recognize the Earth 300 million years ago. Back then, there weren’t the continents or oceans we all know today, but one colossal land mass called Pangea, partnered with an immense solitary ocean known as Panthalassa.

Around 200 million years ago, Pangea started to split up, and since the continents’ locations help define the oceans, new oceans were created.

You Couldn't Pick Earth out of a Lineup Billions of Years Ago

Credits: From high above the Earth looked a little different billions of years ago. Image: Falconaumanni / Wikimedia Commons

This wasn’t even the first time this continental dance party has occurred. Over the approximately 3.5 billion years of the Earth’s existence, there have been a number of supercontinents that have formed and split apart as plates of the lithosphere shifted around.

Because you don’t have 3.5 billion years to read this article, we’ll start with Pangea, since it was the most recent supercontinent, and the formation that preceded the continents as we know them in their current state.

The Tectonic Plate Tug of War

Credits: Right now, there's one particular continent where the tectonic plates are doing everything they can to put some distance between themselves. Image: United States Geological Services

The Earth’s current continents aren’t all on individual tectonic plates. They are simply the arrangement of tectonic plates at this time. If plates are convergent, they are rubbing against each other, or colliding with each other. Divergent plates pull away from each other.

In the case of our newly forming ocean, the plates are divergent — but this particular location is far from the only place in the world where the separation of plates is happening. It is however currently the only place that an ocean could be forming.

What Does Russia Have to Do With This?

Credits: Lake Baikal has the honorary role as one of the planet's living history books..

The same process of land splitting is also happening in Russia. The division of Lake Baikal acts like a 25-million-year-old history book; a watery time capsule of sorts.

Located in southern Siberia between Irkutsk Oblast and the Buryat Republic, Lake Baikal offers incredible insights about the tectonic activities that have occurred in the past between the Eurasian and Amur plates.

There are several factors as to why this lake is so valuable to the scientific community.

Lake Baikal Is One of a Kind

Credits: Baikal is insulated from environmental degradation by its sheer immensity and far-flung location.

Baikal is the oldest lake in the world with its incredible lifespan of 25 million years. It is also the deepest lake on the planet at 1,700 meters (5,577 feet).

Lake Baikal is truly unique in many ways. As wide as a sea and boasting the depth of an ocean, this freshwater lake is home to approximately 3,700 species of plants and animals — approximately 75 to 80 percent of which cannot be found anywhere else on the planet.

Source: Lake Baikal

It's the Recipe Book For Forming an Ocean

Credits: Lake Baikal’s kilometers of sedimentary deposits offer invaluable information for geologists.

Due to constant geological activity, the lake is never really calm and is constantly filled with oxygen that travels deeper into its water than in any other lake. Its kilometers of sedimentary deposits offer invaluable information for geologists, providing an inside perspective on how oceans form.

Scientific circles often refer to this amazing body of water as a benchmark for important rift studies — not to mention overall global change.

Source: Lake Baikal: World’s Largest, Deepest Lake

What Can Lake Baikal Tell Us?

Credits: During the Jurassic time period, continued rifting resulted in the formation of the Atlantic Ocean.

Dr. Deborah Hutchinson, a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, parallels the Lake Baikal rift system with the formation of ancient Atlantic-type continental margins and adds, “It tells us the first chapter in the story of how continents separate and ultimately develop into ocean basins like the Atlantic Ocean.”

You can see how this could be useful information to consider when we talk about ocean formation today as the surface of the Earth continues to evolve.

Source: Lake Baikal – A Touchstone for Global Change and Rift Studies

You Can Fit Large Things in a Rift Zone — Like an Ocean

Credits: What goes on when rifting is underway and tectonic plates start to shift. Image: Joshua Doubek

The benefit of this? Rift formation across the globe is now better understood. Thanks to the extensive research being carried out in the Lake Baikal rift area, scientists have created a new model for explaining the formation of rift zones across the globe.

Remember, these zones are huge cracks between tectonic plates which can be 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) long, up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) wide and approximately 10 kilometers (six miles) deep. Literally big enough to fit a small ocean inside.

The Forces That Can Pull the Planet Apart

Credits: There are rift valleys scattered across the globe that can swallow mountain ranges whole.

As shown with the map of Pangea, until 60 million years ago North America and Europe were one continent — until a rift zone emerged forcing the two apart. Those same mechanics of continental drift continue to shape the world around us. The gaps and spaces created between divergent tectonic plates are sometimes known as rift valleys.

There are other fissures between Earth’s tectonic plates which are divided into four major groups: mid-ocean ridges, continental rift valleys, great rift valleys and rift lakes.

Source: Rift Zones: New Understanding Of Incredible Forces, Oil And Gas Reserves Beneath The Earth’s Surface

The Rift Valleys That Could Change Everything

Credits: Rift valleys are found everywhere on land and especially underwater.

Rift valleys are scattered everywhere around the planet, and some even exist within the borders of the United States. The deepest and probably most powerful rift valleys are situated underwater, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the East Pacific Rise.

There are very active valleys found on land, too; the East African Rift, the Baikal Rift Valley, the West Antarctic Rift and the Rio Grande Rift.

Source: Rift valley

How Does This Help Make a New Ocean?

Credits: The surface features of the Mediterranean Sea, which some in the scientific community think was created in a matter of months. Image: NASA

How fast can a new ocean form? Well, there’s no road map for this, but looking at the creation of the Mediterranean Sea (yes, it used to be dry land during the last Ice Age), it is theorized that the entire Mediterranean basin might have flooded in as little as several months.

There is no exact process for how to qualify a new ocean. Let’s face it — when was the last time we had to do this?

The Planet's Way of Announcing the New Ocean Was Huge

Credits: A surveyor from the Ethiopian Mapping Agency examines a ground rupture created during a rifting event. Image: Tim Wright, University of Leeds.

It began in 2005 when a 60 kilometer-long-crack (37 miles) opened up on the Earth’s surface. For geography to change this much and this quickly is pretty astonishing, but there is a reason for it.

The area sits on different tectonic plates where the tectonic plates are divergent, and as we mentioned earlier they move away from each other instead of colliding. This means that it’s just a matter of time before they rupture apart.

How Many Kardashians Wide Is This Thing?

Credits: Among other things, these arrows are pointing to where you now have to watch your step. Image: Julie Rowland, University of Auckland

This new crack unzipped in a matter of days and was as much as six meters (20 feet) wide at some points. While we tend to view geography as something that moves slowly, it turns out this isn’t always the case.

Let’s put some perspective on this: According to expert online sources, Kim Kardashian is 1.59 meters (five feet, two inches) tall, so the large part of the crack is about four Kim Kardashians wide.

Source: How Tall Are The Kardashians In Feet? From Kris, Khloe and Kim to Kourtney

The Debate Begins: What Is Causing This?

Credits: Plate tectonics or extreme rainfall? Experts are split on the exact cause.

Similar cracks have appeared in Kenya, but there is some debate as to the cause of things. It could potentially be plate tectonics, or maybe extreme rainfall? Experts are split on the exact cause.

This new crack is about 15 meters (50 feet) deep and almost 20 meters (65 feet) wide at some points. The most crucial question is this: what caused the opening of the crack — the drifting of plates, or was it something else?

Source: A giant crack in Kenya opens up, but what’s causing it?

Rifts Play a Substantial Role — In Everything

Credits: As lands continue to separate, the impact isn’t just about geological transformations but environmental changes as well.

While some members of the scientific community continue to debate the exact cause of the latest fissure in south-western Kenya, the gap continues to grow.

Although there is a big difference between a visible crumbling of the Earth’s crust and the forming of enormous canyons and mountain ranges (and even further to the splitting of a continent and emergence of a new ocean), one thing everyone agrees on is the importance of the rifts and their roles in shaping the face of the Earth.

Source: Why is Africa rifting?

Why People Should Start Worrying

Credits: These openings in the Earth's crust aren't happening in the middle of nowhere. image: Peter Jeynes

What does this mean for the people who live in the area? Well, to put it mildly, there are serious hazards to populations living near the rift. Volcanic activity could expedite the shifting of tectonic plates, further presenting potential risks to people.

Not to mention, you can’t expect a new ocean to form in your neighborhood without a bit of a change in property values. After all, what are the odds of you being the one who gets oceanfront property versus being swept out to sea?

Africa's Surface Is Starting to Look Like the Ocean Floor

Credits: Scientists are thinking that what is happening in Africa is what also occurs at the bottom of the planet's oceans.

After the initial scientific dilemmas about what exactly is happening, scientists have agreed that the process beneath this particular rift shares significant similarities with the ones that take place on the floor of Earth’s oceans.

Studies suggest that the fractures of tectonic ocean plates near their edges could be sped up by intense volcanic activity to the point of causing a sudden massive break-up of large surface sections.

Source: African desert rift confirmed as new ocean in the making

It's Developing Where You Might Not Expect

Credits: Cracks and faults that formed in September, 2005. Image: Julie Rowland, University of Auckland

So where is this new ocean formed?

If you haven’t already put the pieces together, this ocean is developing in the last place you’d think of — in the middle of a desert.

Specifically, it will be forming in the middle of the Ethiopian desert, in the Afar region. All that sand might make for some nice beaches when the process is finished. The most interesting part isn’t what happens on the surface though, it’s what happens below.

This Is What Will Happen When Africa Splits Up

Credits: A topographical representation of the Afar Depression. Image: Zyzzy / Wikimedia Commons

What exactly is happening below the surface?

The slow expansion of the crack will tear the Afar desert area and the Horn of Africa away from the rest of the continent. That alone doesn’t make an ocean, but there are several factors at play here.

The crack is occurring in an area known as the Afar Triangle, or Afar Depression. This area contains the lowest point in Africa — Lake Asal, Djibouti — which is 155 meters (or 509 feet) below sea level.

The Big Question

Credits: A MODIS satellite image of the Afar Depression and surrounding area. Image: NASA

When will the rift valley get flooded?

The Afar desert in Northern Ethiopia is also a place where two great plates — the African and the Arabian — meet. Unfortunately, when two plates encounter one another, the relationship is often temporary at best.

This rifting process between the two plates only appears to be happening now; it isn’t something that started in 2005 — that’s just when we began seeing the most visible results of a process that has been occurring under the surface for a very long time.

Here's What Will Take Place

Credits: The Afar Depression (also called the Danakil Depression, or the Denakil Plain) at present (top) and flooded (bottom).

For the past 30 million years or so, the plates have been drifting apart at a rather slow pace of about 2.5 centimeters (one inch) per year. That has shaped the geography of the area.

Thanks to these divergent plates, both the Red Sea and the nearly 300 kilometer (186 mile) Afar Depression were formed. However, it’s only a matter of time before the Red Sea rushes over Ethiopia and helps to form a new ocean.

Source: Giant Crack in Africa Will Create a New Ocean

What's Stopping the Floodwaters Will Surprise You

Credits: Currently, a small elevation is the key piece in the puzzle as to why there's not a flood happening right now in the Afar Depression. Image: Google Earth.

A chunk of rock is the only thing stopping the water. Seriously, a small elevation in Eritrea is what prevents the Afar Depression from being flooded.

Seismologists from the University of Bristol and members of research teams in Afar are claiming that the only thing separating the Afar Depression from the oceans is a 20 meter (66 foot) block of land in Eritrea. It’s rather amazing that such a relatively small geographic feature could be stopping the formation of an ocean.

How It's All Going to Go Down

Credits: The Afar Depression seen from space. Image: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S. / Japan ASTER Science Team

How long it will take to fill the gap with water is really the only remaining question in this equation. As soon as a connection between land and water is established, the crack and surrounding land will take on water from the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, submerging the areas that are below sea level and creating a rather substantial new body of water.

A further point of interest is that the ocean might grow much larger than just the area of the Afar Depression.

The Role Volcanos Will Play In All of This

Credits: Volcanic activity could expedite the shifting of tectonic plates, further presenting potential risks to the population.

Volcanic activity could cut the continent apart faster than we think. There is a general consensus in the scientific community that the creation of this Ethiopian desert rift resembles that of rifts occurring on some of the world’s ocean beds.

Studies suggest that the fractures of tectonic ocean plates near their edges could be sped up by intensive volcanic activity, to the point of a sudden massive break of large sections.

Source: African desert rift confirmed as new ocean in the making

It Takes a Colossal Amount of Magma to Shift a Plate

Credits: Tectonic plates have to be pushed apart by something, and in this case it was probably magma. Image of the continental plates in the Horn of Africa.

There are some impressive numbers behind continental drifting. How exactly did this continent-splitting fracture happen? It all started when a volcano named Dabbahu, located in the Afar desert, erupted, essentially unzipping the tectonic plates.

2.5 cubic kilometers of magma (that’s 2.5 trillion liters or about 660,430,130,895 gallons) forced itself up between the plates, pushing them apart and creating the fissure we now see. Just so you know, 2.5 cubic kilometers of magma is the equivalent of one million Olympic-sized swimming pools of red-hot fiery death.

There's No Stopping This

Credits: The evidence is in front of us right now, but this story will be carrying on for millions of years.

The drift is happening, but it’s going to be millions of years in the making… probably. It will divide Ethiopia down the middle.

According to scientists at Britain’s Royal Society who closely monitor what is happening not only in the Afar region of Ethiopia but also in the rest of the East African Rift Valley, the splitting of the continent is inevitable. We might not be around to see it, but that said, the world is full of surprises.

What Will the Planet Look Like?

Credits: Visualization of how Africa could split apart based on rift zones.

When it happens, the Afar will be flooded by the Red Sea on the north end. The water will run from the Afar into the East African Rift Valley, finding its way through lowland region after lowland region until it eventually finds its way to connect to the Arabian Sea in the south.

The resulting body of water will redefine the map of the world that we know, and become a brand-new ocean.

Source: Africa ‘witnessing birth of a new ocean’

What Scientists Are Learning Surprised Even Them

Credits: This entire process is happening quicker than scientists originally thought. Image: Cindy Ebinger, University of Rochester, New York.

It might seem like a million years is a long time to wait, but not in the ocean-forming world. The time frames of geography are typically much longer.

“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,” explains University of Rochester professor of earth and environmental sciences Cindy Ebinger.

The Side Effects of a New Ocean Forming

Credits: If people are still surfing in the future, they'll have a prime spot as Africa's new ocean comes together. Image: Shalom Jacobovitz

Don’t grab your surfboard right away. Ebinger estimates that it will take between 100,000 and one million years before the new ocean forms. But in geographic terms, that is just the blink of an eye.

There could be additional impacts from rising ocean levels and human interference (think climate change — we are an amazingly creative species when it comes to endangering our own survival), but no one is yelling “surf’s up!” just yet.

Source: African Desert Rift Confirmed As New Ocean In The Making

Tectonic Plates Aren't Just an Issue in Africa

Credits: Like Africa, Iceland is seeing the fallout of two tectonic plates moving underneath it.

There is another spot on Earth, similar to the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, where the drifting of two major plates is underway. Iceland is also in the midst of tectonic plate shifting, a process physically tearing the country apart.

This small Nordic island country is often described as a land of fire and ice. The reason for this lies in the fact that Iceland is located right on the divergent boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates, and is no stranger to volcanic activity.

Source: Plate Tectonics

Iceland Is Feeling the Pull

Credits: Þingvellir straddles two tectonic plates, putting it at the epicenter of the Iceland shift.

These splits are global. Thingvellir straddles two tectonic plates, putting it at the epicenter of the Iceland shift. An emerging crack is located near the Þingvellir area, which is well-known for its highly active tectonic and volcanic environment.

Thingvellir belongs to the great Mid-Atlantic Rift which divides Iceland in half. One part of the island lies on the North American tectonic plate, like the Westfjords and Reyjavík for example, while the other side with the Vatnajökull glacier and the East Fjords belongs to the Eurasian plate.

Source: Þingvellir National Park – Where You Walk Between Two Continents

Is Iceland In Trouble?

Credits: There are several plates, both major and minor, that contribute to the geographical issues being felt by Iceland and Africa.

Here’s what is going on in Iceland:  The North American and Eurasian plates are two of the three largest primary tectonic plates on the planet, coming right after the massive Pacific plate, and followed by the African, Antarctic, Indo-Australian and South American plates.

The North American and Eurasian plates are moving away from each other, forming the divergent boundaries known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which goes right through Iceland.

Source: How Many Tectonic Plates Are There?

Earthquakes Are Becoming a Problem

Credits: A diver goes exploring in the glacial meltwater of an Icelandic rift.

These cracks are filling with glacial meltwater. The continuous activities along the edges of the North American and Eurasian plates in Iceland often result in more frequent earthquakes.

Most of them are just small tremors but occasionally a major one strikes the island and makes new fissures, particularly in the Þingvellir area. These fissures are now filled with crystal clear water that has been filtered by the volcanic rocks for hundreds of years.

Source: Silfra, Between The Continents

This Rift Valley Isn't Just Enormous — It's Monstrous

Credits: The Mid-Atlantic Rift is huge, ranking as Earth’s largest geological element.

This rift valley marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The Mid-Atlantic Rift is massive, holding the title of Earth’s largest geological element. The total length of the ridge is about 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) and it nearly connects the North and the South Poles.

Its width varies between 1,000 and 1,500 kilometers (620 and 932 miles), while some of its peaks reach up to three kilometers (1.86 miles) in height from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Iceland Holds the Answers

Credits: The North American and Eurasian plates are moving in two different directions, slowly but surely.

Iceland’s Rift Valley helps the scientific community understand what is really going on along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. They don’t just come for the breathtaking scenery and the unparalleled swimming opportunities, they come for a ringside seat into the changing evolution of our planet’s geography (and possibly for the Skyr yogurt).

After all, if you were going to watch something as slow-moving as the continental plates, wouldn’t you want to do it from a place with a nice view?

Source: The Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Earth is Moving, Magma is Spewing and What It All Means

Credits: The plates are drifting about 2 centimeters (0.79 inches) apart every year.

The National Land Survey of Iceland keeps a close eye on what is going on in this region and their measurements illustrate the plates’ alarming progress.

They continuously monitor the movements of the North American and the European tectonic plates, and their latest figures show that the gap between the two increases about 2 centimeters (0.79 inches) each year. As the plates shift, new land is gradually being formed from the magma coming out from the Earth’s inner core.

Source: How fast is Iceland growing due to the tectonic plates drifting apart?

Will Iceland Split Into Two?

Credits: Rock outcrop in Iceland, a visible surface feature of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the Easternmost edge of the North American plate. Image: Pmarshal / Wikimedia Commons

Probably. It’s just a question of when. One thing is for certain — Earth is definitely splitting apart along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The North American plate is sliding westward, while the Eurasian plate is going eastward.

Where does this leave Iceland? Sitting on the top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, it’s hard to avoid its destiny of being one of the most geologically active populated areas in the world. And like Africa, its future holds changes that will impact the entire planet.

Source: Iceland’s Volcanoes