TechAfrica slowly splitting in two: How Somali tectonic plate is set to reshape the continent

Africa slowly splitting in two: How Somali tectonic plate is set to reshape the continent

The continent is splitting in half.
The continent is splitting in half.
Images source: © Licensor | Earth universe / 500px

8:43 AM EST, January 15, 2024

Africa is the second-largest continent in the world. But this won't always be the case. As per geologists, the tectonic plates that formed the East African Rift continue to move apart.

The East African Rift

Visible clearly on physical maps of the continent, the East African Rift is a key part of the so-called Great African Rift Valleys. These valleys stretch longitudinally for thousands of miles, extending towards the Red Sea. Their low regions are marked by rivers, lakes, and waterfalls.

This landscape has been taking shape over the last 35 million years. Initially, the rifting was marked on the border extending from Arabia to the Somali Peninsula. Over 10 million years later, it extended southwards, reaching the northern part of Kenya.

The East African Rift now consists of two extensive fissures in the Earth's crust. The Eastern one traverses through Ethiopia and Kenya, while the Western one forms an arc stretching from Uganda to Malawi.

Tectonic plate boundaries in East Africa
Tectonic plate boundaries in East Africa© Licensor

Formation of the East African Rift

The tectonic pedigree of the East African Rift is evident. Though, it's fascinating to imagine that its formation is due to heat emanating from the Earth's hot mantle layer known as the asthenosphere.

Using the boundary between the tectonic plates - the Nubian one in the west and the Somali one in the east - the heat causes the Earth's crust to expand like cake in an oven, thus crumbling the continental rock.

Typically, such events are accompanied by intense volcanic activity, as was seen in the past. An example is Africa's highest peak, Kilimanjaro. Its massif houses three stratovolcanoes, only the dormant Kibo emits hydrogen sulfide from its crater. The others are considered extinct.

At times, geologic forces weaken, bringing continental rifting to a halt.

"Failed rifts occur across the globe," confirms Cynthia Ebinger, a geologist from Tulane University in New Orleans.

Prospects of a new continent

Researchers from the Geological Society of London believe this applies to the eastern crack of the rift. The plate separation process continues. The Western Rift is still separating the African Highlands from the central part of the continent.

The existence of an earthquake and volcano zone recently located on the eastern coasts of Africa confirms this. Scientists estimate that the splitting of the African continent is happening at a speed of 0.25 inches per year. At this rate, the separation of tectonic plates could occur over a period of 1 to 5 million years.

In geological terms, this isn't too long. It may result in the current African Highlands separating from Africa. The Somali plate could keep moving east, and central Africa and the Namibian plate might end up separated by an ocean.

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