A new body of water may be budding in Africa. The Afar rift, a depression located in Northern Ethiopia, is slowly widening at an astounding rate of almost an inch every year. Given such rate, we can expect a new ocean in the African continent after a few million years.
A strong seismic activity that occurred at the Dabbahu volcano in 2005 resulted in a massive crack on the earth’s surface. The fissure, which is approximately 60 kilometers or 37 miles long, eight meters wide, and about two meters deep, opened up like a zipper on the landscape. A few months after, several crevices were discovered around the desert while the ground sunk at an estimated depth of 100 meters. Scientists also noted magma rising from the bottom of the newly-formed abyss at that time. Seemingly, what they witnessed was the birth of a basalt ocean floor.
The depression was created due to days of intense seismic activity in the area.
The central section of the crack that opened south of Dabbahu volcano.
A newly-exposed scarp formed after the Dabbahu seismic activity in 2005.
Apparently, the African continent used to consist of a single, enormous tectonic plate some thirty million years ago. However, a massive volume of lava surged from the Earth’s crust and sliced through the ground, creating depressions that turned into what we now know as the Red Sea.
At present time, Africa is composed of three plates, namely the Arabian, African, and Somalian plates. These three meet at a junction known as the Afar Triple Junction, and they move away from each other at around one to two centimeters every year. When the depression that separates the Arabian and the African plate becomes large enough, water from the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden will pour into it and a new body of water will be formed. It is estimated that this process will take 10 million years to complete.
An illustration of the Afar Triangle (shaded area) and a few of the historically active volcanoes (red triangles) that surround it.
How an ocean is formed: (1) rift formation; (2) water enters the depression; (3) continuous spreading process.
Currently, the highlands that surround the Danakil Depression provides a natural barrier, preventing water from the Red Sea from pouring in. But once the higher ground erodes or the tectonic plates move, nothing is stopping the flooding in of seawater.
The crack on Earth’s surface taken in 2005, as seen from above.
The fissures resemble those found at mid-ocean ridge.
The Afar Rift is unique as it offers geologists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to carefully study how an ocean is formed, a process that usually takes place underwater. Our generation may not be able to see the process through its end as we definitely won’t be around when the depression actually turns into a body of water, but at least future scientists will not grapple for answers if and when they decide to find out about the birth of a certain sea in northern Ethiopia.
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