Throw your globes out the window boys and girls — the field of geography is about to get exciting! We are not talking about erosion or your average run of the mill volcano eruption. We are talking about the fact that the wheels are in motion for the creation of a brand new ocean — one forming right in the middle of Africa.
It started with a small crack in 2005
It began in 2005 when a 60 kilometer-long-crack (37 miles) opened up in the middle of the Afar desert in Ethiopia. For any region to change this much and this quickly is pretty astonishing, but there is a reason for it.
The crack opened up in a matter of days and was as much as 6 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.
It only took days for a giant crack to form
According to expert online sources, Taylor Swift is 1.78 meters (five feet, eight inches) tall, so the large part of the crack is over three Taylor’s wide.
These plates are divergent; they move away from each other instead of colliding. In case you were absent from class that day, tectonic plates are large chunks of rock that form the lithosphere; the outer shell of the Earth on which life exists (or, as some people call it — the important part).
A 60 kilometer (37 mile) stretch of the Earth opened up
Since the lithosphere isn’t a solid shell, these plates can shift around based on what happens underneath them, and how adjacent plates shift.
For example, adjacent plates can slide alongside each other, causing earthquakes; volcanic eruptions along the edges or between tectonic plates spew out magma that can force the plates apart.
This typically happens at the bottom of the ocean where we can’t see it particularly well. Changes on the surface often happen too slowly for us to notice without scientific study.
Is the African continent splitting apart?
Theories on the formation of the continents as we know them now is a bit divided — not unlike the space that separates these land masses today. Some scientists believe(d) that not so long in the past (a mere 200 million years or so), all the landmasses on Earth were grouped together in a supercontinent named Pangea.
The theory went that the continents drifted apart across the ocean bed, relative to each other. We call this continental drift. As science brings new information to light, however, this previous theory has become somewhat absorbed by the idea that there might have been “supercontinents” several times in the past.
The contemporary theory is that the different plates have continually shifted around; moving apart, coming together and moving apart again (we call this plate tectonics).
Serious hazard to populations living near the rift
After the initial scientific dilemmas about what is exactly happening in the Ethiopian desert, 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.
Are the cracks an ominous sign of a larger, wetter event?
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.
While 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?
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 a number of 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.
A chunk of rock is the only thing stopping the water
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.
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.
When will the rift valley get flooded?
The Afar desert in Northern Ethiopia is also a place where two great plates — African and Arabian — meet together.
The rifting process between them is already happening, not only now, but for the past 30 million years or so at a rather slow pace of about 2.5 centimeters (one inch) per year.
Thanks to that, both the Red Sea and the nearly 300 kilometer (186 mile) Afar depression were formed. It’s only a matter of time before the Red Sea rushes over Ethiopia and helps to form a new ocean.
Similar cracks have appeared further south, in Kenya
Ethiopia is not the only country in eastern Africa with huge cracks beginning to form. In early 2018 a new crevice exposed itself in Kenya, only about 97 kilometers (60 miles) west of its capital city of Nairobi.
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 the plates, or was it something else?
Small cracks are turning into giant canyons
While some members of the scientific community continue to debate the exact cause of the latest fissure in south-western Kenya, the splintering continues to grow little by little.
However, it’s a long way from the visible cracking of the Earth’s crust to the forming of enormous canyons and mountain ranges, let alone 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?
Volcanic activity could cut the continent apart faster
After the initial scientific dilemmas about what is exactly happening in the Ethiopian desert, scientists have agreed that the process behind this particular rift shares significant similarities with the ones that take place on the ocean floor.
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.
This means the same thing could happen in Ethiopia, too.
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.
Dividing Ethiopia in the middle
The great African plate can no longer be regarded as a unified entity, but rather a greater area of further fragmentations between the smaller Somali and Nubian plates.
But where does that leave Ethiopia and the rest of the eastern Africa region? Right in the middle of the rupture.
Scientific predictions point to further driftings between these Somali and Nubian plates which will ultimately lead to the final splitting of Africa into two unequal parts.
The map of Africa will have a lot more blue in it
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.
When it happens, the Afar will be flooded by the Red Sea on the north. The water will find its way to connect with the Arabian Sea to the south and the new ocean will finally be born.
It’s going to take time
“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.
Don’t grab your surfboard yet. Ebinger estimates that it will take between 100,000 and one million years before the ocean forms. But in geographic terms, that is just the blink of an eye.
These splits are global
An emerging crack is located near the Þingvellir area in Iceland, which is well-known for its highly active tectonic and volcanic environment.
Geologically, Þingvellir belongs to the great Mid-Atlantic Rift which divides Iceland right in two. One part of the island lies on the North American tectonic plate, like the Westfjords and Reyjavík for example, while the other part with the Vatnajökull glacier and the East Fjords belongs to the Eurasian plate.
Similar cracks to Africa's have appeared in Iceland
There is another spot on Earth, similar to the Rift Valley of Ethiopia, where the drifting of two major plates is more than obvious. Iceland is being ripped apart as well.
This small Nordic island country is full of sharp contrasts and it 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.
Source: Plate Tectonics
Why is Iceland in trouble?
North American and Eurasian plates are two of the three biggest tectonic plates on the planet, coming right after the massive Pacific plate and 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 that goes right through Iceland.
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 marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge
Iceland’s Rift Valley helps the scientific community to understand what is really going on along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The total length of the Mid-Atlantic 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 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) in height from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Source: The Mid-Atlantic Ridge
Measurements illustrate the plates' alarming progress
The National Land Survey of Iceland is one of the organizations that keep a close eye on what is going on in this region.
They continuously monitor the movements of the North American and the European tectonic plates, and their latest measurements show that the gap between the two increases about 2 centimeters (0.8 inches) each year.
As this occurs, new land is gradually being formed from the magma coming out from the Earth’s inner core.
Will Iceland split into two someday?
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 one is going eastward, and there’s probably nothing that could stop them from further drifting.
So, where does this leave the beautiful country of Iceland?
Sitting on the top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge Island it’s hard to avoid its destiny of being one of the geologically most-active populated areas in the world.
Source: Iceland’s Volcanoes
The same process is also happening in Russia
Located in southern Siberia between Irkutsk Oblast and the Buryat Republic, Lake Baikal offers incredible insights about tectonic activities between the Eurasian and Amur plates.
There are several factors as to why this lake is so valuable to the scientific community. Baikal is the oldest lake in the world with its incredible lifespan of 25 million years, and it’s also the deepest lake on the planet at 1,700 meters (5,577 feet).
Source: Lake Baikal
Lake Baikal is providing an inside perspective on how oceans form
Scientific circles often refer to Lake Baikal as a benchmark for important rift studies and the overall global change.
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.”
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 (6 miles) deep.
As shown with the map of Pangea, until 60 million years ago North America and Europe were one continent until a rift zone emerged between the two.
Fortunately, Lake Baikal remains largely pristine
Lake Baikal is truly unique in many ways. With its width of a sea and the depth of an ocean, this freshwater lake is home to approximately 3,700 species of plants and animals. Approximately 75 to 80% of these cannot be found anywhere else on the planet.
Due to constant geological activities, the lake is never really calm and gets filled with oxygen that travels deeper into its water than in any other lake.
Rift valleys around the globe
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.
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
You wouldn't recognize Earth 300 million years ago
300 million years ago there weren’t the continents or oceans we all know today, but one colossal land mass called Pangea which was partnered with a solitary immense ocean known as Panthalassa.
Starting 200 million years ago, Pangea began splitting apart, turning Panthalassa into separate oceans around it in the process.
On top of this, over the course of Earth’s 3.5 billion-year-history several supercontinents may have been formed and broken apart.