• East Africa will likely separate from Africa in at least 5 million years.
• Tectonic movement in the East African Rift System (EARS) is majorly responsible for this, as well as volcanoes and earthquakes in the region.
• A new ocean will likely also emerge.
Africa is on its way to splitting into two separate continents, however, not nearly as soon as some may fear.
In a few million years, East Africa could break off from the rest of Africa to form its own continent, likely causing a new ocean to emerge.
The prospect of the split and new ocean recently caused a frenzy on social media as pictures of a 2018 incident resurfaced.
In March, 2018, a video showing the emergence of a huge crack in Kenya’s Rift Valley went viral and sparked immense concern over the possible split of the country. The crack—spanning 20 metres wide and 15 metres deep—was said to be caused by tectonic movements in the area.
However, it was no cause for alarm, considering the Rift Valley was so named because of its regular rifting activity. Though that particular incident was very odd, it was not uncommon for cracks to appear in the area due to more localised events such as erosion.
The impending continental split has to do with the East African Rift System (EARS), a two-branch tectonic structure which stretches nearly 6,500 kilometres from Jordan in the Middle East to Mozambique.
The eastern branch runs through several east African countries including Kenya where it provides sufficiently high temperatures for geothermal energy generation. The western branch provides potential for direct-use applications in east African countries as well as Zambia and Malawi.
At the EARS, the Earth’s tectonic forces are trying to create new tectonic plates by tearing apart old ones.
According to a 2004 study, the tectonic plates which lie underneath the African continent are forcing its break-up into the smaller Somalian block and the Nubian block at a snail-paced rate of 6-7 millimetres per year.
The process of the EARS split is said to have started over 25 million years ago, and is estimated to culminate in a great split in another 5-10 million years.
The Earth Has Always Been Moving Apart
It is worth noting that this is not the first time parts of the Earth will be splitting.
Geologists believe in the Theory of Plate Tectonics which explains that large pieces of the lithosphere, the rigid outermost shell of the Earth, called tectonic plates are constantly moving.
The Continental Drift theory, from which the Theory of Plate Tectonics was derived, posits that the continents moved and drifted apart to give the continents we have today. This explained why the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America fit together like a jigsaw puzzle—they were once one supercontinent named Pangaea!
Years later, the derivative theory expounded that it was actually the major tectonic plates, not continents, that moved. Although, some continents are whole tectonic plates on their own (e.g. the African plate), some occur in the middle of plates (e.g. the Eurasian plate).
The split between Pangaea, and possibly other supercontinents, is believed to have happened over a hundred million years ago.
A more recent example is the Arabian plate which has been moving away from Africa for nearly 30 million years.
The separation between Africa and Arabia was believed to have happened over 20 million years ago, giving rise to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a deepwater gulf in the Indian Ocean.
The Arabian plate continues to move toward the Eurasian plate, leading to collisions which trigger natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes.
These areas are the most affected and suffer from chronic vulnerability to cyclones and floods.
The tragic Turkey-Syria earthquake was related to tectonic movements around the Arabian plate.
Likewise, most of the volcanic and seismic (earthquake) activity in Africa—particularly East Africa—is associated with the EARS.
Scientists believe that the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden will flood into the EARS and become a new ocean when the new East African continent emerges.
Who knows what the new continent will be called in the millions of years to come, or if humanity will even be around to see it?
Sources: IFL Science, Let’s Talk Science, The U.S. Sun