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Africa’s tectonic shift: how the continent is splitting apart

Africa is slowly splitting in two, geologists have confirmed, a process that will eventually tear entire nations away from the continent and lead to the formation of a new ocean.

According to a peer-reviewed study published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal, the gradual splitting of the continent is connected to the 35-mile-long crack that appeared in the desert of Ethiopia after an earthquake in 2005, and will eventually become an entirely new sea. 

What did the new research show?

Seismic data quoted in the study shows that the creation of the rift was triggered by similar tectonic processes that take place at the bottom of the ocean.

The appearance of the East African Rift, at the southern end of the Great Rift Valley that extends from Lebanon in the north to Mozambique in the south, happened at the border of three tectonic plates – the African Nubian, African Somali and Arabian. They are “very slowly peeling away from each other”, explained NBC. 

“For the past 30 million years, the Arabian plate has been moving away from Africa, a process that created the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden between the two connected landmasses,” said the news site. The Somali tectonic plate in eastern Africa is “also stretching away from the Nubian plate, peeling apart along the East African Rift Valley, which extends through Ethiopia and Kenya”.

The process will eventually “cleave Africa in two and create a new ocean basin”, said NBC, but for now, “the most obvious evidence is a 35-mile-long crack in the Ethiopian desert”.

How long will Africa take to split?

It is thought it will take “at least 5 million to 10 million years” before a new ocean forms and splits the continent in two. The Arabian plate moves away from Africa “at a rate of about 1 inch per year” while the African plates move “between half an inch to 0.2 inches per year”.

Although the process is happening so slowly, researchers say they can see clear signs that it is occurring.  

“We can see that oceanic crust is starting to form because it’s distinctly different from continental crust in its composition and density,” Christopher Moore, a doctoral student at the University of Leeds, told NBC.

What does it mean for Africa?

Millions of years from now, landlocked countries in Africa will find themselves with a coastline – which could open up new opportunities and connections to the rest of the world.

Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Zambia would all “inadvertently find themselves with a coastline”, said Quartz. This would allow them to “build harbours that connect them to the rest of the world directly”, the news site said. 

The split could cause Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, the eastern parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique to drift away from the rest of the continent, while other nations like Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia would have “two territories each”.

While a new coastline would cost these countries “millions of dollars in evacuation” it could also come with “huge advantages”, such as “the reduction in international logistical expenses and creation of shipping and fishing industries that did not exist”.

It also means these nations could “finally be directly connected to sub-sea internet cables” assuming, of course, that technology has not been “bypassed by time” and that nation states “will still exist in the form they do now”.

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