The African continent is very slowly peeling apart.
Scientists say a new ocean is being born.
In one of the hottest places on Earth, along an arid stretch of East Africa’s Afar region, it’s possible to stand on the exact spot where, deep underground, the continent is splitting apart.
This desolate expanse sits atop the juncture of three tectonic plates that are very slowly peeling away from each other, a complex geological process that scientists say will eventually cleave Africa in two and create a new ocean basin millions of years from now.
For now, the most obvious evidence is a 35-mile-long crack in the Ethiopian desert.
The African continent’s tectonic fate has been studied for several decades, but new satellite measurements are helping scientists better understand the transition and are offering valuable tools to study the gradual birth of a new ocean in one of the most geologically unique spots on the planet.
“This is the only place on Earth where you can study how continental rift becomes an oceanic rift,” said Christopher Moore, a Ph.D. doctoral student at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, who has been using satellite radar to monitor volcanic activity in East Africa that is associated with the continent’s breakup.
It’s thought that Africa’s new ocean will take at least 5 million to 10 million years to form, but the Afar region’s fortuitous location at the boundaries of the Nubian, Somali and Arabian plates makes it a unique laboratory to study elaborate tectonic processes.
Earth’s crust is made up of a dozen large tectonic plates, which are irregularly shaped, rocky slabs that constantly mash against, climb over, slide under or stretch apart from one another.
For the past 30 million years, the Arabian plate has been moving away from Africa, a process that created the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden between the two connected landmasses.
But the Somali plate in eastern Africa is also stretching away from the Nubian plate, peeling apart along the East African Rift Valley, which extends through Ethiopia and Kenya.
But there are still some big unknowns, including what is causing the continent to rift apart.
Some think that a massive plume of superheated rocks rising from the mantle beneath East Africa could be driving the region’s continental rift.