In 2005, an astounding series of events took place in the Afar region, creating a significant impact on the continent of Africa. The region, already known for its extreme and inhospitable conditions, experienced 420 earthquakes and volcanic activity that resulted in the emergence of a massive 60-kilometer-long crack. This remarkable development has raised the possibility of Africa being divided into two separate parts.
Scientists and officials initially estimated that it would take around 5 to 10 million years for such a process to occur. However, recent scientific discoveries and findings suggest that this significant geological event may happen much sooner than originally anticipated.
One prominent geoscientist involved in researching this phenomenon is Cynthia Ebinger, a renowned authority in this field. Having dedicated her career to studying the geological dynamics of the region, Ebinger’s work has been widely recognized and acknowledged. Her publications in prestigious scientific journals, such as Nature, have been referenced over 16,000 times by her peers, solidifying her expertise in the subject matter. In 2023, Ebinger signed seventeen papers, most of which focused on the newly formed oceanic channel in the Afar region, situated at the convergence of three tectonic plates: the Arabian, African (Nubian), and Somalian plates.
Ebinger’s research dates back to the late 1980s when she started closely monitoring this geological phenomenon. One of her influential papers, published in Nature in 1998, explores the impact of a single hot spot, resulting in Cenozoic magmatism across East Africa. This study, cited over 900 times by her colleagues, examines the effects of magma on the Ethiopian plateau.
Ebinger’s findings highlight that the Ethiopian highlands and East Africa have the largest volumes of magma, covering a vast area of over a thousand kilometers, intersected by the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the East African rift systems. She explains that an underground volcano in Ethiopia is currently obstructing a massive body of saltwater from flowing through.
The tectonic plates, namely the Somalian to the east, the African (or Nubian) to the west, and the Arabian to the northeast, are exerting tremendous pressure on the Victoriana plate. As the rupture in this plate collision widens, a portion of the Somali plate may separateth and move towards the Indian Ocean, creating space for a new ocean to form.
While many often refer to this phenomena as the birth of a new ocean, Ebinger clarifies that this may not always be the case. The 2005 mega-event serves as the pivotal evidence supporting this theory. In September of that year, the barren region in Ethiopia experienced 420 earthquakes that shook the very foundations of the earth. Volcanic activity accompanied these tremors, releasing ash into the air.
In 2009, further research led by Ethiopian geophysicist Atalay Ayele from Addis Ababa University discovered three magma sources in the Dabbahu-Gab’ho and Ado’Ale volcanic complexes. The largest of these sources, from which a portion of the flow originated, played a significant role in the formation of this unique geological structure, which may eventually become an incipient oceanic rift.
Ayele, in an article published in the scholarly journal Geophysical Research Letters, stated that this “volcanic-tectonic crisis” would gradually shape the morphology of an incipient oceanic rift. Responding to inquiries from BBC Brazil about the study, Ayele mentioned that numerous rupture activities were already underway, with the collision of the Eurasian and African plates leading to the formation of new mountain ranges, comparable to the creation of the Alps.
Nevertheless, it is essential to emphasize that this entire geological process will likely take millennia, if not centuries, to complete. While the seismic map undoubtedly indicates the emergence of an ocean, the full transformation will require countless millions of years.
“The seismic map shows that an ocean is emerging, but it will take millions and millions of years,” affirms Ayele. With the incredible rate at which scientific advancements are taking place, it will be fascinating to witness the progression of this geological wonder and its impact on the continent of Africa. Humanity must remain patient as the Earth continues to shape itself, allowing the forces of nature to unfold at their own pace.