Like most relationships, Africa is going through a nasty split, thanks to an enormous crack that appeared in Kenya out of nowhere – but don’t worry, the continent isn’t expected to break apart any time soon.
In fact, scientists are speculating that it will take another 50 million years for the rift to break the continent up into two pieces. But how exactly did the crack appear and is there something we can do to prevent it from getting worse?
Africa Could Lose its Eastern Coast
They say that when a metaphoric rift opens up in a relationship, a break up is inevitable – the same can be said about Africa’s lithosphere where a crack opened up quite literally, putting the continent in the danger of breaking up into separate land masses.
The crack appeared some time in late March in Kenya’s Rift Valley after a series of heavy rainfalls and earthquakes. The rift, which was 50 feet in width and depth, split open a busy road in the valley, as well as tearing apart houses and farms nearby.
One of the families at the incident site reported that they were having dinner in their home when a fissure suddenly appeared underneath their feet, barely giving them enough time to escape before their house completely split into two parts. Although scientists say that it will take more than 50 years for the crack to completely split Africa’s eastern coast into smaller pieces, most of the damage is expected to occur in the near future.
What’s the worst that could happen? Africa could lose its 4,600-kilometre eastern coastline which is currently home to 22 million residents.
Understanding Tectonic Plates
The Earth’s lithosphere is made up of a number of tectonic plates, which are simply pieces of Earth’s crust lying just above its asthenosphere, 50 to 100 miles beneath the surface. These plates tend to have a magnetic effect on each other which often causes them to shift around, although scientists aren’t completely sure if the forces between the tectonic plates is the sole cause of their movement. Some have speculated that currents within the asthenosphere below the plates may also contribute to the sudden shifts.
One tectonics researcher at the University of London said that cataclysmic earthquakes and other substantial events like the splitting of land and motorways should be seen as a sign of continental rifting of a monumental scale but, if it occurs in a continent like Africa, it usually goes unnoticed by the rest of the world.
The East African Rift (EAR) system which consists of two of the most sizable plates in the continent, Nubian Plate and Somali Plate, doesn’t just expand over most of Africa but also takes up a sizable chunk of the Atlantic Ocean, spreading all the way to the south to meet the Antarctic plate. The two African tectonic plates spread over 1,800 miles, covering half of the eastern coast of the continent as well as the Gulf of Aden and South Africa.
What Triggered the Rift?
Research shows that the two tectonic plates are shifting every year by 7 millimeters, which may not seem like a lot, but the aggregate effect of shifting over the decades along with currents underneath the earth’s surface, have finally caused rifts to form in the land. The rifting has now started an unstoppable chain of events which is likely to end in a continental breakup in a few million years.
One of the forces which may have brought about the splitting of the land is the amount of magma trapped under the asthenosphere, pushing up against the Earth’s surface, causing a dome to form underneath the crust which eventually exerts enough pressure to make it crack. The magma plum has also caused the temperature of the Earth’s surface to rise, making the rocks expand as they heat up, essentially weakening the ground and breaking it apart.
Although the final split isn’t set to occur until tens of millions of years from now, when it does, it will transform parts of Africa including Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania into separate islands in the Indian Ocean while the rest of the continent will shrink in size.