Cracking Earth: The Birth of a New Ocean in Africa


In 2005, a series of 420 earthquakes and volcanic activity led to the emergence of a colossal 60-kilometer-long fissure in the Afar region. This region, widely recognized as one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, is now witnessing the potential birth of a new ocean. Initially, experts estimated that this transformative process would take anywhere between 5 to 10 million years to develop fully. However, recent scientific discoveries suggest that this geological event could occur much sooner than anticipated.

Renowned geoscientist Cynthia Ebinger, who has been researching this phenomenon since the 1980s, provides fascinating insights into the current situation. As a researcher at Tulane University in the United States, Ebinger has gained tremendous authority in this field, with her works being published in prestigious scientific publications like Nature. Her research on the newly formed oceanic channel in the Afar region has become the focal point of seventeen papers she published in 2023. The Afar region itself is located at the convergence of three tectonic plates: the Arabian, African (also known as Nubian), and Somalian plates.

Ebinger’s groundbreaking 1998 article, titled “Cenozoic magmatism across East Africa resulting from the impact of a single hot spot,” has been cited over 900 times by her peers. Her extensive research analyzes the impact of magma on the Ethiopian plateau, employing a model applicable to the volcanism that occurred over 45 million years ago in East Africa. She highlights that the Ethiopian highlands and East Africa, spanning over a thousand kilometers, are dominated by vast volumes of magma, which are intersected by the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the East African rift systems.

One crucial factor in the emergence of the new ocean is the presence of an underground volcano in Ethiopia, obstructing the passage of a significant body of saltwater. Ebinger explains that the tectonic plates – the Somalian plate to the east, the African (or Nubian) plate to the west, and the Arabian plate to the northeast – are all exerting immense pressure on the Victoriana plate. If the rupture in this collision widens, a portion of the Somalian plate could separate and move towards the Indian Ocean, consequently creating space for the formation of a new ocean.

However, it’s important to clarify that the notion of a new ocean is not always accurate. Ebinger and other experts emphasize that the process is ongoing and can take millions and millions of years to reach a complete transformation. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence supporting this theory. The seismic activity observed during the 2005 mega-event serves as primary proof. Over a span of just one month in September, 420 earthquakes rocked the barren landscape of Ethiopia, accompanied by volcanic eruptions that released ash into the air.

Further studies conducted by Ethiopian geophysicist Atalay Ayele of Addis Ababa University in 2009 shed more light on this geological phenomenon. Ayele discovered three magma sources in the Dabbahu-Gab’ho and Ado’Ale volcanic complexes. The second-largest source of magma was found to have contributed to the volcanic eruption that occurred during the 2005 event. Ayele’s research, published in the Geophysical Research Letters, indicates that this “volcanic-tectonic crisis” has the potential to shape the formation of an incipient oceanic rift.

Through email correspondence with BBC Brazil, Ayele confirms that numerous rupture activities are already unfolding as a result of the collision between the Eurasian and African plates. This collision is leading to the formation of new mountain ranges, such as the Alps. However, it is important to note that this entire geological process will require an immense timescale – potentially taking millennia or even centuries – to reach its full fruition.

In conclusion, the Afar region’s emergence as a new ocean is a fascinating geological development. While scientific research and discoveries have shed light on this transformation, it is crucial to remember that the timescale for such a significant event is astronomical. Nevertheless, the ongoing geological activities and seismic data provide compelling evidence of the potential birth of a new ocean in one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth.

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