Africa is slowly peeling apart as new ocean forms, scientists say

Researchers say the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea will flood in over the hottest spot on the earth to become a new ocean and a smaller separate continent

East Africa Desert
East Africa Desert Rift, 2005 University of Rochester

Millions of years from now, a new ocean and continent will be formed separating East Africa from the mainland. 

Scientists have said that the 35-mile-long crack in the Ethiopian desert is the first indicator that the three tectonic plates under the area are very slowly peeling away from each other. 

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The split began in 2005 when a violent split equivalent to several hundred years of tectonic plate movement occurred in just a few days. 

Ken Macdonald, a marine geophysicist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara told NBC News, The Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea will flood in over the Afar region and into the East African Rift Valley and become a new ocean, and that part of East Africa will become its own separate small continent.” 

The area is one of the hottest places on Earth. Temperatures in the Afar can go up to 130 degrees in the daytime and 95 degrees at night. “The hottest inhabited town on the Earth’s surface is in the Afar.” Cynthia Ebinger, a geophysicist at Tulane University said. 

Field research and satellite observations have helped scientists draw these conclusions. It is unknown what exactly is causing the plates to start moving. The leading theory is that massive superheated rocks are bubbling up from the Earth’s mantle. 

The Afar region of East Africa has been compared to the surface of the moon. The area is dry and desolate, part of it is covered in hardened lava from millions of years ago. The area is home to a “triple junction” of three tectonic plates: the Nubian, Somali, and Arabian. They all meet near Eritrea and Djibouti. Scientists are excited by the developments which still will not be realized for millions of years.

However, the shift shows that there are signs of exciting things to come. 

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One of those signs are displayed by the rate in which these three plates will separate. While the two African plates are moving between 1 to 0.2 inches per year, Macdonald reports, the Arabian plate will shift more swiftly at 1 inch per year.

Researchers contend that as the material from inside the Earth emerges over time to the top of its surface to form oceanic crust at the ridges.

“We can see that oceanic crust is starting to form because it’s distinctly different from continental crust in its composition and density,” Christopher Moore, a Ph.D. doctoral student at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom reports.

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