New satellite measurements are offering valuable tools to study the tectonic rift in one of the most geologically unique spots on the planet.
In one of the hottest places on Earth, along an arid stretch of East Africa’s Afar region, it’s possible to stand on the exact spot where, deep underground, the continent is splitting apart.
This desolate expanse sits atop the juncture of three tectonic plates that are very slowly peeling away from each other, a complex geological process that scientists say will eventually cleave Africa in two and create a new ocean basin millions of years from now. For now, the most obvious evidence is a 35-mile-long crack in the Ethiopian desert.
The African continent’s tectonic fate has been studied for several decades, but new satellite measurements are helping scientists better understand the transition and are offering valuable tools to study the gradual birth of a new ocean in one of the most geologically unique spots on the planet.
“This is the only place on Earth where you can study how continental rift becomes an oceanic rift,” said Christopher Moore, a Ph.D. doctoral student at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, who has been using satellite radar to monitor volcanic activity in East Africa that is associated with the continent’s breakup.
It’s thought that Africa’s new ocean will take at least 5 million to 10 million years to form, and the Afar region’s fortuitous location at the boundaries of the Nubian, Somali and Arabian plates makes it a unique laboratory to study elaborate tectonic processes.