The things we learn under Geography may seem to be permanent among other subjects. We know that many years from now what we learned back then will still be the same. But it looks like in a few years from now, we would have to start changing our maps.

Source: Smithsonian Institute

Over the years, things have been changing – islands have sunk while others have emerged. And recently, a whole new ocean is starting to form in the middle of Africa, which would be a major change in geography as we know it.

It started with a volcanic eruption

The Dabbahu Volcano is located in the Afar region in Ethiopia, Africa. It is part of the Afar Triangle, which is a very active volcanic region. The Dabbahu is a stratovolcano and it goes by a lot of names such as Mount Dabbahu, Boyna, Boina, and Moina.

Source: Volcano Discovery

On September 26, 2005, the Dabbahu Volcano erupted. Although an active volcano, this was the only eruption that was ever recorded in its history. Before the eruption took place, earthquakes happened over the land.

Fissure formation

Ash from the eruption had darkened the area around the volcano for 3 days and 3 nights. Then, it was discovered that the eruption formed a 500-meter- long fissure. But the cracks in the land led to something bigger.

Source: Amusing Planet

What seemed to be a harmless crack on the surface widened within days. Some parts were as wide as 6 meters. It was estimated that the entire crack’s volume was enough to fill up millions of Olympic swimming pools.

Cracks were spreading

The eruption of the Dabbahu volcano caused a fracture in the tectonic plates in the area. During the eruption, magma was able to get in between the plates. As a result, the tectonic plates were pulled apart and this created cracks on the surface.

Source: Amusing Planet

Months after the volcanic eruption, more cracks have appeared across the area. It has been discovered that dozens more have formed in the southern part of Ethiopia. They were slowly spreading and each new crack widened up within days and weeks.

Changing planet

While the cracks were not a cause of alarm on the surface, scientists later realized that the continent was in the process of splitting apart underground. To this day, it is believed that underground eruptions and movements of the tectonic plates are still going on.

Source: Unsplash

As they say, change is the only constant thing in this world. After all, the Earth is not a planet that is constant and stable. Geographical changes occur all the time on a minute level and these changes happen underground where it can be hard to observe.

Underground movement

Plate tectonic movement happens every minute but we only get to notice when something major happens. Some of these major events that make them noticeable are earthquakes, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions.

Source: Quizlet

The Earth’s lithosphere is divided into tectonic plates. These plates are not stationary – they move toward each other at different speeds. The mechanisms behind this movement are still being debated and studied.

An interesting phenomenon

Plate tectonic movement is not always smooth sailing – sometimes the plates rupture, which leads to the formation of rifts. Sometimes new plate boundaries are also created when the plates rupture. And this is what is happening in Africa.

Source: Discover Magazine

The Afar desert is now known to be the only place on Earth where you can study how continental rifts can turn into an oceanic rifts. Because of this, a lot of teams from all over the world have flocked to the area to bear witness and gain insight into this phenomenon.

A risky location

But this takes some sacrifice as well. The Afar Desert is a hostile region after all. The place had gone through a lot of changes thanks to volcanic activities through the years and it has become so difficult for anything to live in it.

Source: Columbia Climate School

Scientists of different disciplines have flocked to the rift despite the hazards. The danger was not only in putting their health at risk. At the time, Ethiopia was under a lot of political danger with hundreds of people being killed in government protests.

Real-time geology

There is no denying that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a continent rip. It was like watching geology in real-time. So for the scientists working on the fissure, it was worth all the risks.

Source: Nerdist

Geologists who have been observing and working in remote area predicts that this ocean formation will eventually split the African continent in two. But before anyone panics, you should know that this is set to take place 10 to 50 million years from now.

The East Africa Rift

The East Africa Rift or EAR zone is where the African continent is splitting up. Today, the East African Rift valley stretches over 3,000 kilometers starting from the Gulf of Aden in the north heading to Zimbabwe in the south.

Source: Nerdist

As you can see from the map, the splitting is caused by the Africa Plate which is also splitting up into two new plates: the Somali Plate and the Nubian Plate. The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are predicted to flood into the Afar region and the East African Valley. Once this happens a new ocean will form.

A long transformation

For the past years, the volcanoes in the area have been pouring magma beneath the land that the crust is almost made out of basalt. This forms the oceanic crust. All that is missing is just for the water to come pouring in.

Source: Columbia Climate School

Although the expected big split is not likely to happen in our lifetime, the impacts are showing. Ever since the volcanic eruption in 2005, Afar has transformed dramatically. The desert has fissures packed with molten rock that has cooled down.

A scientific treat

Thanks to advanced satellite data, scientists can now see clear signs of this transition taking place. You see, as the tectonic plates peel apart, material from deep inside the Earth starts to move up to the surface and form oceanic crusts in the ridges.

Source: Columbia Climate School

This is a treat since most of these things happen in the sea, making researchers have a hard time observing it. But thanks to the fissure in the Afar desert, they can learn more about tectonic plate movements.

The birth of a new ocean

University of Bristol seismologist Dr. James Hammond has been working in the Afar desert. He points out that parts of the area are below sea level and the ocean is just blocked by a 20-meter block of land in Eritrea.

Source: INSH

If the ocean manages to flood in the fissures, this will start to create a new ocean. The flooding will sink down and pull apart some parts of Ethiopia. They have estimated that Somalia and some parts of southern Ethiopia would drift off and become islands of the Indian Ocean.

Another crack in Kenya

With all of this happening in Ethiopia, media outlets started buzzing again when a large crack formation showed up in the Kenyan Rift Valley in April 2018. Many reports have taken it as a confirmation that the African continent is indeed splitting up into two pieces.

Source: Cultura Colectiva

The appearance of the cracks was coincidental with the occurrence of frequent earthquakes happening at the time. Plus, the cracks were located where a new tectonic plate boundary was forming. So naturally, people assumed that this case was the same as that in Ethiopia.

A different culprit

But upon investigation, researchers found that the cause of these huge cracks in the land was something else entirely. It turned out that the crack was not formed by movements of tectonic plates but by soil erosion beneath the surface.

Source: USA Today

The erosion was caused by heavy rains that had taken place in the region. The rainwater had washed away the deep layers of loose volcanic ash that happened to be deposited by previous volcanic eruptions in the Kenya rift valley.

Remembering Pangea

This is not the first time continents are tearing apart. In fact, 300 million years ago, the continents and the oceans that we now know did not exist. A map back then would be a far cry from what we have now.

Source: INSH

There was just this one huge land mass called Pangea and a huge global ocean called Panthalassa. Then, 100 million years later, Pangea started to divide, creating the continents that we know now. The division also transported the Panthalassa into separate oceans.

Continental split in the making

And now, it seems that the division of land mass will be happening again. In a few million years from now, the African continent will turn into a cluster of archipelagos surrounding a large piece of what would remain of the original continent.

Source: INSH

The researchers find that we are extremely lucky to witness the birth of an ocean in our lifetime. Thanks to this phenomenon, researchers and scientists will be able to understand the natural hazards and the effects of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions better.

A global phenomenon

But did you know that Africa is not the only place that is in danger of splitting up in the future? It turns out that rifts and fissures are forming all over the globe. About 8,000 kilometers from Ethiopia, Iceland is at risk of splitting up too.

Source: World’s Most Awesome

Iceland is a small island country that can be found between Greenland and Norway. It is called the land of fire and ice because of its contrasting landscapes. It is home to several volcanoes.

Drifting plates

Iceland sits between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. These two plates are found to be drifting apart and when that happens, Iceland can be in danger. It is estimated that the country might split into three parts.

Source: Geology IN

A fissure can be found in the Þingvellir region – an area that has an active volcanic and tectonic environment. Several cracks can be found on the surface of the plain and new cracks are appearing as time passes.

Something to think about

The earth is indeed full of surprises. It makes one pause to think and wonder about the impact humans have in causing these geological changes. It is about time that we start taking better care of the planet so that future generations can still benefit from it.

Source: Amusing Planet

The phenomenon happening in the Afar desert of Africa is considered to be the site of the very first continental breakup that would involve and impact modern human existence. Who would have thought that one of the driest and hottest deserts on Earth will be the birthplace of a new ocean?