A giant fissure is slowly tearing apart Africa, the second largest continent. This depression – known as the East African Rift – is a network of valleys stretching some 2,175 miles (3,500 km) in length, from the Red Sea to Mozambique, According to the Geological Society of London.
Will Africa be completely torn apart, and if so, when will it be divided? To answer this question, let’s look at the area tectonic platesthe outer parts of the planet’s surface that can collide with each other, forming mountains, or break apart, forming vast basins.
Along this massive rupture in East Africa, the Somali tectonic plate juts eastwards from the largest and oldest part of the continent, the Nubian tectonic plate, According to the NASA Earth Observatory. (The Somali plate is also known as the Somali plate, and the Nubian plate is sometimes called the African plate.)
The Somali and Nubian plates separate from the Arabian plate in the north. The Geological Society of London notes that these plates intersect in the Afar region of Ethiopia, creating a Y-shaped fault system.
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The East African Rift began to form about 35 million years ago between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa in the eastern part of the continent. Cynthia Ebingerpresident geology at Tulane University in New Orleans and science advisor to the US State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, he told Live Science. This rift extended south over time, reaching northern Kenya 25 million years ago.
The fault is formed by two parallel sets of fractures in the Earth’s crust. The Geological Society of London notes that the eastern rift runs through Ethiopia and Kenya, while the western rift extends in an arc from Uganda to Malawi. The eastern branch is dry, while the western branch borders the Congo rainforest, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory.
The presence of eastern and western rifts and the discovery of marine areas earthquakes And volcanoes Epbinger notes that Africa is slowly opening up along several streaks, which together total more than 0.25 inches (6.35 mm) annually.
“The crack is now very slow, about the rate at which one’s fingernails grow,” Ken McDonaldDistinguished Professor Emeritus of Geosciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Live Science.
The East African Rift was likely formed by heat flowing from the asthenosphere — the hotter, weaker, uppermost part of Earth’s mantle — between Kenya and Ethiopia, according to the Geological Society of London. This heat caused the upper crust to expand and rise, stretching and cracking the brittle continental rocks. This led to significant volcanic activity, including the formation of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, the NASA Earth Observatory noted.
If Africa is indeed being torn apart, there are differing ideas for how this could happen. One scenario is that most of the Somali Plate separates from the rest of the African continent, with a sea forming between them. This new land mass, Ebinger said, would include Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, eastern parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. “Another scenario separates only eastern Tanzania from Mozambique,” Eppinger noted.
If the African continent were to be torn apart, Ebinger said, “the rift in Ethiopia and Kenya may split off to form the Somali plate within the next one to five million years.”
However, Africa may not be divided into two parts. The geological forces driving the rift may have been too slow to separate the Somali and Nuba plates, Eppinger said. One notable example of a failed rift elsewhere in the world is the Mid-Continent Rift, which curves for about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) across North America’s upper Midwest, according to a 2022 review in the journal. GSA today.
“Failed divisions form continental landmasses all over the world,” Eppinger said.
The eastern branch of the East African Rift is a failed fault, according to the Geological Society of London. However, the western branch is still active.
“What we don’t know is whether this rift will continue at its current pace to eventually open up an ocean basin, like the Red Sea, and then later into something much larger, like a small version of the Atlantic,” McDonald said. “Or might it speed up and get there more quickly? Or might it stop?”
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