In somewhere between five and ten million years, the tectonic plates that form Africa are likely to rip apart so much that it’ll eventually split the continent in two.
Within Ethiopia’s Afar region, the Arabian, Nubian, and Somali tectonic plates are slowly pulling away from each other, gradually creating a vast rift — slowly forming a new ocean.
“We can see that oceanic crust is starting to form, because it’s distinctly different from continental crust in its composition and density,” University of Leeds Ph.D. student Christopher Moore told NBC.
Scientists have suspected that the plates are pulling apart for a while, but new improvements to GPS are helping them figure out exactly what’s happening beneath the surface.
The new ocean will give geologists an unprecedented opportunity to figure out how such a tectonic break happens.
While the Earth’s tectonic plates are constantly moving around, scientists still don’t know what, specifically, is driving these three away from each other.
The leading theory right now is that massive, superheated rocks are bubbling up from the mantle right at the point where the three plates meet, but ideas like these are difficult to prove.
The geological setting
Each plate boundary in the Afar region is spreading at different speeds, but the combined forces of these separating plates is creating what’s known as a mid-ocean ridge system, where eventually a new ocean will form.
The Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea will flood in over the Afar region and into the East African Rift Valley and become a new ocean, and that part of East Africa will become its own separate small continent.
The three plates are separating at different speeds. The Arabian plate is moving away from Africa at a rate of about 1 inch per year, while the two African plates are separating even slower, between half an inch to 0.2 inches per year, according to Macdonald.
Now, do you remember the cracks in the region? They opened back in 2018, here some articles: