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The dawn of Earth’s sixth ocean: Africa is splitting in half

[Aug. 29, 2023: Kanaga Rajan, San Francisco State University]

African Ocean
A large crack, stretching several miles, made a sudden appearance recently in south-western Kenya. This is what Africa could look like in millions of years. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In the quiet stretches of Ethiopia’s desert, a 35-mile-long crack, known as the East African Rift, has been slowly forming since 2005. This geological feature isn't just another interesting fact for the trivia-minded—it signifies something far more profound.

According to cutting-edge research, the tectonic plates under Africa are shifting, hinting at the African continent eventually splitting in two. Such a tectonic phenomenon isn’t just of academic interest; it will reshape political borders, economic avenues, and the very geography of our planet, potentially leading to the birth of Earth's sixth ocean.


The Ground Beneath Shifts: The East African Rift’s Story

The story begins with the ever-shifting tectonic plates, vast slabs of Earth's crust that float atop the semi-fluid mantle. The activity of these plates has been responsible for the creation and breakup of supercontinents throughout Earth’s history.

The ongoing shift between the Somalian tectonic plate and the larger Nubian tectonic plate indicates an epochal change—something that hasn’t been observed since the days South America and Africa became separate entities, hundreds of millions of years ago.


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The evidence for this comes from a meticulously detailed study on the separation dynamics of the Somalian and Nubian tectonic plates.

Published in the acclaimed, peer-reviewed journal, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, this study found that these plates have been drifting apart, albeit at a pace of just a few millimeters per year.


Imagining a Split Africa: New Coastlines and A New Ocean

But what does this mean for Africa's future landscape? The implications are both geologically magnificent and socio-economically transformative. Countries that have known no beaches, like Ethiopia and Uganda, might one day boast bustling ports. Trade routes could be redefined, offering these landlocked nations fresh opportunities for economic growth and development.

A man takes a selfie photograph near a chasm suspected to have been caused by a heavy downpour along an underground fault-line near the Rift Valley town of Mai Mahiu. (CREDIT: REUTERS)

Ken Macdonald, a renowned marine geophysicist and a professor emeritus at the University of California, offered an intriguing glimpse into the future. Speaking to Mashable, he said, “The Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea will flood in over the Afar region and into the East African Rift Valley, giving birth to a new ocean. Consequently, that part of East Africa will morph into its own separate small continent.”


This is not just about geographical changes. The very ecology of the region will transform, with marine life colonizing areas that were once arid and dry. Human settlements could navigate the challenges and opportunities of newly formed coastlines. The possibilities, while exciting, also come with uncertainties.

A tanker drives near a chasm suspected to have been caused by a heavy downpour along an underground fault-line near the Rift Valley town of Mai-Mahiu. (CREDIT: REUTERS)

A Continent's Slow Dance: The Timeline

However, there’s no need to rush for beachfront property in Ethiopia just yet. Nature’s processes, especially ones of this magnitude, operate on a timeline that stretches well beyond human lifetimes or even the histories of our oldest civilizations.


Researchers estimate that while the African continent is indeed in the process of splitting, the complete transformation, leading to a separate continent and a new ocean, will not occur for another 5 to 10 million years.

The estimated relative pole of rotation of Somalia with respect to Nubia is located at 54.8°S; 37.0°E with magnitude −0.069°/Ma, implying distinct opening in the Ethiopian Rift of magnitude ≈7 mm/year and azimuth ≈N94°E, whereas in southeastern South Africa this value is reduced to ≈2 mm/year in almost the same direction. (CREDIT: Earth and Planetary Science Letters)

In the meantime, this shift serves as a compelling reminder of the dynamic nature of our planet. Earth's surface, despite seeming solid and permanent, is in a constant state of flux.


The birth of a new ocean and the remolding of a continent are just chapters in Earth's ever-evolving geological story—a story that we, as its fleeting inhabitants, have the privilege to witness, study, and understand.

For more environmental news stories check out our Green Impact section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by San Francisco State University. Content may be edited for style and length.


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