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VIDEO: New African Ocean Emerged with Spectacular Speed

Posted on: March 10, 2011

In 2005 an Ethiopian volcano erupted, tearing a thirty-five mile rift in the country in a matter of days -incredibly fast in geological terms – especially since this may well be the first sign of an incoming Ethiopian Ocean. Nature seems to like keeping us on our toes. Geologists believed the rift was the beginning of a new ocean as two parts of the African continent pulled apart, but the claim was controversial.
Scientists from several countries have confirmed that the volcanic processes at work beneath the Ethiopian rift are nearly identical to those at the bottom of the world’s oceans, and the rift is indeed likely the beginning of a new sea.

It’s known that new oceans form as magma forces its way into rifts between tectonic plates, but since every other such system worked – and is now under miles of ocean – we can’t actually get down there for a detailed look. Instead, an international collaboration of scientists both local and abroad studied the sudden “mega-dike intrusion” (a much less scary way of saying “holy hell our country just ripped open”) and found that it matches all the signs for a prototype ocean bed.

“This work is a breakthrough in our understanding of continental rifting leading to the creation of new ocean basins,” says Ken Macdonald, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and who is not affiliated with the research.

“The whole point of this study is to learn whether what is happening in Ethiopia is like what is happening at the bottom of the ocean where it’s almost impossible for us to go,” says Cindy Ebinger, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study. “We knew that if we could establish that, then Ethiopia would essentially be a unique and superb ocean-ridge laboratory for us. Because of the unprecedented cross-border collaboration behind this research, we now know that the answer is yes, it is analogous.”

Atalay Ayele, professor at the Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, led the investigation, painstakingly gathering seismic data surrounding the 2005 event that led to the giant rift opening more than 20 feet in width in just days.

Along with the seismic information from Ethiopia, Ayele combined data from neighboring Eritrea with the help of Ghebrebrhan Ogubazghi, professor at the Eritrea Institute of Technology, and from Yemen with the help of Jamal Sholan of the National Yemen Seismological Observatory Center. The map he drew of when and where earthquakes happened in the region fit well with the more detailed analyses Ebinger has conducted in more recent years.

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