Africa is not breaking in two. However, the three tectonic plates that make up East Africa are moving apart. What does this mean? Scientists believe that the Eastern part of Africa will continue to move apart along the East African Rift and the ocean will fill in the space left behind. It all depends on where the rift continues to form as to where the water will fill in. But research leads us to believe that Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania may end up on two land masses divided by ocean.
East African Rift
The East African Rift System (EARS) is a continental rift system that is the largest of its kind in the Cenozoic era. Its Eastern Branch extends from Afar to the Tanzania divergence. The Western Branch stretches from northern Uganda to Mozambique. These two branches of the rift facilitate the separation between the major Nubian and Somalian plates.
The three major plates in the region are the Somalia, Arabian, and Nubian plates.
Besides the three major plates, the region is also made up of several smaller plates known as micro plates.
Three micro plates of note are the Victoria, Rovuma, and Lwandle microplates.
The current movement of the plates are measured with the aid of GPS and earthquake slip data. This data indicates that the Somalia, Rovuma, and Lwandle plates rotate clockwise.
Yet, Victoria’s rotation is a remarkable exception. This microplate rotates counterclockwise around an Euler pole. This pole is several hundred kilometers north of the plate, in contrast to the other microplates.
Euler poles describe the movement of a rigid body, such as a plate, on the surface of a sphere. This movement is a rotation around a fixed axis relative to a chosen reference frame. The Euler pole represents this axis of rotation. By knowing the Euler pole and the rate of rotation about the pole, the movement of a plate can be determined.
These Euler poles can also be used to reconstruct plates in the recent past, within a few million years. Scientists can use this data to see how the plates already moved.
The Suswa Crevasse
On March 19, 2018, new crevasses emerged in the area of the Suswa shield volcano in Kenya, causing significant damage to the busy Mai Mahiu-Narok road. This incident occurred just one week after a similar event on the same road.
Geologists reported that the tear caused by the new crevasses was up to 15 meters (50 feet) deep and over 20 meters (65 feet) wide. They also noted that this location was only one of many weak spots on the Great Rift Valley, which spans the continent from the Horn of Africa to Mozambique and has a history of tectonic and volcanic activity.
Suswa, a shield volcano situated between Narok and Nairobi counties, is part of the Great Rift Valley.
Researchers suggest that a new ocean may emerge in the future as a result of a continuous split in Africa. According to Christopher Moore, a doctoral student at the University of Leeds, the split in the Ethiopian desert is the only place on Earth where one can observe how a continental rift transforms into an oceanic rift.
He notes that oceanic crust is beginning to form, which differs from continental crust in its composition and density.
This split, known as the East African Rift, could potentially develop into a new ocean and provide countries like Kenya and Uganda with a coastline. But don’t worry, this won’t interfere with your Kilimanjaro plans. This process could take five to ten million years.
Ken Macdonald, a marine geophysicist at the University of California, predicts that the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea will flood into the East African Rift Valley and become a new ocean, causing a small continent to form in East Africa.
The split, which formed in 2005, lies on the boundary of the three aforementioned tectonic plates: the Somalian, Nubian, and Arabian tectonic plates. The plates are drifting apart at a rate of a few millimeters per year.
Cynthia Ebinger, a geophysicist at Tulane University, noted that the split formed in one of the hottest regions on Earth, with daytime temperatures reaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
She also speculates that pressure from rising magma could cause explosive events in the region.
The earth’s plates are constantly moving. The three plates in East Africa are more active than the others. As with most plate movements the change will not be seen in our lifetime, but it is fascinating to see the potential break up of Africa into two separate continents.