091103-new-ocean-02

See that seemingly innocuous little crack in the desert of Ethiopia in the picture above? Apparently the ~55km long rift (which first appeared in 2005) is the birthplace of a new ocean. What’s even more impressive is that the rift tore open across it’s entire length in a manner of days, not geological timescales like millenia or ‘mya‘. More over at Livescience:

“We know that seafloor ridges are created by a similar intrusion of magma into a rift, but we never knew that a huge length of the ridge could break open at once like this,” said Cindy Ebinger, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study.

The result shows that highly active volcanic boundaries along the edges of tectonic ocean plates may suddenly break apart in large sections, instead of in bits, as the leading theory held. And such sudden large-scale events on land pose a much more serious hazard to populations living near the rift than would several smaller events, Ebinger said.

“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 Ebinger. “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.”

The African and Arabian plates meet in the remote Afar desert of Northern Ethiopia and have been spreading apart in a rifting process — at a speed of less than 1 inch per year — for the past 30 million years. This rifting formed the 186-mile Afar depression and the Red Sea. The thinking is that the Red Sea will eventually pour into the new sea in a million years or so. The new ocean would connect to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, an arm of the Arabian Sea between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia in eastern Africa.

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