Huge Crack in African Desert Will Turn into a New Ocean

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Huge Crack in African Desert Will Turn into a New Ocean

The rift in Afar, Ethiopia, Credit: University of Rochester
The rift in Afar, Ethiopia,
Credit: University of Rochester




Back in 2005, a 35-mile long rift opened in the Ethiopian desert which baffled scientists and geologists alike. The crack, some 20 feet wide in places, is believed to be the beginnings of a new ocean. Though not thoroughly analyzed, the crack presents a striking resemblance to what happens with the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Furthermore, this new crack extends under the Red Sea as well.

By looking at the data gathered from all the seismic activity taking place back in 2005, scientists were able to deduce that the rift formed in just a few days time. Dabbahu volcano, located at the northern edge of the crack, erupted first and then the magma pushed forward through the middle of the rift basically “unzipped” the ground above.

“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,” said Cindy Ebinger, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study.

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Ebinger also stood to mention that an event like this went against previous notions on how these kinds of rifts form in the first place. Prior to this event, scientists held on to the notion that tectonic ocean plates break off into tiny bits, instead of large chunks like it was the case here in Ethiopia. Moreover, these kinds of large-scale and sudden events can pose a serious hazard to people who’re living near such rifts all over the globe.

“The whole point of this study is to learn whether what is happening in Ethiopia is like what is happening at the bottom of the ocean where it’s almost impossible for us to go,” says Ebinger.

“We knew that if we could establish that, then Ethiopia would essentially be a unique and superb ocean-ridge laboratory for us. Because of the unprecedented cross-border collaboration behind this research, we now know that the answer is yes, it is analogous.”

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But don’t let yourself be fooled about this event. The African and Arabian plates, which come together in the Afar desert of Ethiopia, have been drifting apart for the past 30 million years or so, at a rate of 1 inch per year. This continuous and natural geological process has formed the 186-mile-long Afar depression, as well as the Red Sea itself. As time marches on, this sea will eventually pour into this depression in a million years or so.

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