The great rift: Africa’s splitting plates could give birth to a new ocean, but with consequences

Evacuation of people and the potential loss of lives will be an unfortunate cost of this natural phenomenon
Map of East Africa showing the two parts of the African Plate (the Nubian and the Somalian) splitting along the East African Rift Zone. Image credit: United States Geological Survey.
Map of East Africa showing the two parts of the African Plate (the Nubian and the Somalian) splitting along the East African Rift Zone. Image credit: United States Geological Survey.

The emergence of a new coastline is on the horizon, but not without its consequences. Scientists, in 2020, predicted a new ocean would be created as Africa gradually splits into two separate parts. The study has been recently picked up by media outlets as well. 

The division of the continent is connected to the East African Rift, a crack that stretches 56 kilometres and appeared in the desert of Ethiopia in 2005, triggering the formation of a new sea, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters.

This geological process will inevitably divide the continent, resulting in currently landlocked countries, such as Uganda and Zambia, obtaining their own coastlines in due time, which would take five to 10 million years, Christopher Moore, a doctoral student at the University of Leeds, told media.

While the prospect of a new coastline is undoubtedly exciting, the process will not be without significant repercussions.

The necessary evacuation of people and the potential loss of lives will be an unfortunate cost of this natural phenomenon. However, on the upside, the emergence of new coastlines will unlock a myriad of opportunities for economic growth.

These countries will have access to new ports for trade, as well as fishing grounds and sub-sea internet infrastructure, which will undoubtedly transform their economic potential.

As the Somali and Nubian tectonic plates continue to pull apart from each other, a smaller continent will be created from the rift, which will include present-day Somalia and parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.

The Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea will eventually flood into the Afar region in Ethiopia and the East African Rift Valley, leading to the formation of a new ocean, according to Ken Macdonald, a marine geophysicist at the University of California, told media.

This new ocean will result in East Africa becoming a separate small continent with its own unique geographic and ecological characteristics.

The three plates — the Nubian African Plate, Somalian African Plate and Arabian Plate — are separating at different speeds. The Arabian Plate is moving away from Africa at a rate of about an inch per year, while the two African plates are separating even slower, between half an inch to 0.2 inches per year, according to Macdonald.

What is rifting?

The Earth’s lithosphere, comprised of the crust and upper part of the mantle, is divided into several tectonic plates that are not stationary but rather move in relation to each other at varying speeds.

Tectonic forces not only move the plates but also have the potential to cause them to rupture, resulting in the formation of a rift and potentially leading to the creation of new plate boundaries.

Rifting refers to the geological process in which a single tectonic plate is split into two or more plates separated by divergent plate boundaries.

This process leads to the emergence of a lowland region known as a rift valley, which can occur either on land or at the bottom of the ocean. These rift valleys occur due to the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates, noted National Geographic.

The phenomenon of rifting can be traced back at least 138 million years, when South America and Africa were divided into separate continents, according to a report by UK-based science website IFLScience.

In the present day, the gradual separation of the Somali and Nubian tectonic plates is leading to the formation of a rift that could eventually lead to the creation of a new ocean basin.

In the past 30 million years, the Arabian Plate has been gradually moving away from Africa, which has already led to the creation of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, according to NBC News.

The seismic data obtained by the researchers revealed that similar tectonic processes triggered the rift formation at the ocean’s bottom.

The crack was located at the intersection of three tectonic plates — the African Nubian, African Somali, and Arabian — that have been separating for some time, added the report.

Although the rifting process has been occurring for some time, the potential division made headlines worldwide in 2018 when a large crack emerged in the Kenyan Rift Valley. This highlights the ongoing process of rifting and its potential for creating a new ocean basin.

The movement of tectonic plates is a fascinating geological phenomenon. While it may take millions of years to fully form a new ocean, the potential creation of a new coastline and sub-continents has significant implications for the continent’s future.

As we continue to study and monitor these changes, it is important to remember the power of the Earth’s natural forces and the impact they can have on our planet over time.

Challenges & consequences 

Africa is the most impacted region when it comes to displacement, with a larger number of countries affected than any other continent or region.

As of 2015, more than 15 million people were internally displaced in Africa, according to the United Nations Environment Programme report on displacement and environment.

As the plates continue to split in the future, this phenomenon will result in the displacement of communities, settlements and various flora and fauna.

These changes will impact their habitats due to climate change, resulting in environmental degradation. Rapid urbanisation and increased settlements will put pressure on natural resources, leading to a scarcity of water, energy and food.

Uncontrolled waste disposal will also be a significant concern. Furthermore, some species will disappear, while others will become endangered due to habitat changes.

Rifts showcase a unique topography, distinguished by a chain of depressions bounded by faults and enclosed by elevated terrain.

While the process of rifting may often go unnoticed, the separation of the Nubian and Somali plates can result in the formation of new faults, fissures and cracks or the reactivation of pre-existing faults, leading to seismic activity.

Additionally, the close proximity of the hot molten asthenosphere to the surface causes volcanism, further displaying the ongoing process of continental breakup.

Several planetary transformations are occurring, primarily as a result of climate change. Devastating weather patterns owing to global warming are altering landscapes and raising sea levels.

Although human displacement is not new, climate change exacerbates gradual and abrupt environmental crises by increasing their intensity, frequency and scope.

Over a span of ten million years, seafloor spreading will gradually advance along the entire extent of the rift. This will lead to the flooding of the ocean, resulting in the African continent becoming a smaller, significant island composed of fragments of Ethiopia and Somalia, including the Horn of Africa.

Although rapid occurrences such as the sudden splitting faults may lend a sense of urgency to continental rifting, the process itself is extremely slow and can go unnoticed most of the time as it progressively splits Africa.

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