The African continent is slowly being torn apart by a massive rift known as the East African Rift. This depression is a network of valleys that stretches approximately 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) long, from the Red Sea to Mozambique. The rift is caused by the Somalian tectonic plate pulling eastward from the larger, older Nubian tectonic plate, which is also separating from the Arabian plate in the north.
The intersection of these plates creates a Y-shaped rift system in the Afar region of Ethiopia. The Geological Society of London notes that the East African Rift is a region of active volcanism and seismic activity, with the potential to cause significant geological events. While it is uncertain when the continent will split completely, understanding the tectonic plates and rift system is essential in predicting and preparing for future events.
The East African Rift, which began forming about 35 million years ago, is a rift valley that extends from the Horn of Africa to Mozambique. The rift is made up of two sets of parallel fractures in the Earth’s crust. The eastern rift passes through Ethiopia and Kenya, while the western rift runs in an arc from Uganda to Malawi. The eastern branch is arid, while the western branch lies on the border of the Congolese rainforest.
The existence of the eastern and western rifts, along with the discovery of offshore zones of earthquakes and volcanoes, indicates that Africa is slowly opening along several lines. Cynthia Ebinger, chair of geology at Tulane University, notes that the rifting is occurring at a very slow rate, about the rate at which one’s toenails grow. The rate of rifting is more than 0.25 inch (6.35 millimeters) per year.
The East African Rift most likely formed due to heat flowing up from the asthenosphere between Kenya and Ethiopia. This heat caused the overlying crust to expand and rise, leading to stretching and fracturing of the brittle continental rock. This led to substantial volcanic activity, including the formation of Mount Kilimanjaro.
The eastern branch of the East African Rift is a failed rift, according to the Geological Society of London. However, the western branch is still active. If Africa does rip apart, there are different ideas for how that might happen. One scenario has most of the Somalian plate separating from the rest of the African continent, with a sea forming between them. This new landmass would include Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and the eastern parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique. Another scenario has only eastern Tanzania and Mozambique separating.
If the African continent does rupture, “the rift in Ethiopia and Kenya may split to create a Somali plate in the next 1 million to 5 million years,” Ebinger said. However, the geological forces driving the rifting might prove too slow to separate the Somalian and Nubian plates. Failed rifts mark continental landmasses worldwide, and the Midcontinent Rift across the Upper Midwest of North America is a notable example of a failed rift.
The rift is caused by the movement of tectonic plates. The Somalian and Nubian plates are slowly moving apart, creating a large crack in the Earth’s lithosphere. The rifting process is characterized by the formation of faults and fissures in the crust, which can lead to the formation of new oceans or continents. The East African Rift is an example of continental rifting, where a continental plate is splitting apart.
The East African Rift System is a complex system of rifts and faults that extends for over 3,000 kilometers through eastern Africa. It is composed of three main segments: the northern segment, the central segment, and the southern segment. The northern segment is the oldest and most stable, while the southern segment is the most active. The central segment is the most complex, with multiple rifts and faults.