Cracking the Continent: Birth of a New Ocean in Africa


In the year 2005, a remarkable event took place in the Afar region, known as one of the harshest environments on Earth. A series of 420 earthquakes combined with volcanic activity resulted in the emergence of a 60-kilometer-long fissure, potentially dividing the continent of Africa.

This unprecedented occurrence has led scientists to believe that a new ocean is in the making. Initially, experts estimated that this process would take between 5 to 10 million years to complete. However, recent scientific findings have indicated that the formation of this new ocean may happen much sooner than anticipated.

One prominent geoscientist, Cynthia Ebinger, has been studying this phenomenon since the 1980s. She is considered an authority on the subject and is affiliated with Tulane University in the United States. Ebinger’s extensive research on the issue has been published in prestigious scientific journals like Nature and has been referenced over 16,000 times by her colleagues.

Among her notable works is a 1998 Nature article titled “Cenozoic magmatism across East Africa resulting from the impact of a single hot spot.” In this publication, she explored the effects of magma on the Ethiopian plateau using a relevant model applicable to the region’s volcanism dating back 45 million years.

Ebinger identified the Ethiopian highlands and East Africa as the areas with the largest volumes of magma. These regions stretch over a thousand kilometers and are intersected by the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the East African rift systems.

The geoscientist also discovered a significant obstacle to the formation of a new ocean. She explained that an underground volcano in Ethiopia is currently blocking a large body of saltwater from passing through.

The geology of the region is complex, with three tectonic plates playing a crucial role: the Somalian plate to the east, the African (or Nubian) plate to the west, and the Arabian plate to the northeast. These plates exert pressure on the Victoriana, a smaller plate. As the plates collide, it is speculated that a portion of the Somali plate might separate and move towards the Indian Ocean, creating space for the emergence of a new ocean.

However, it is important to note that not everyone agrees with the classification of this phenomenon as a new ocean. While some scientists support this idea based on the evidence from the 2005 earthquakes and volcanic activity, others argue that the process is still in its early stages.

The 2005 mega-event serves as a significant piece of evidence for those who believe in the new ocean theory. During September of that year, a series of 420 earthquakes shook the region, accompanied by volcanic ash released into the air.

Further research conducted in 2009 by Ethiopian geophysicist Atalay Ayele of Addis Ababa University provided additional insights. Ayele identified three magma sources in the Dabbahu-Gab’ho and Ado’Ale volcanic complexes, with the second source being the largest contributor to the eruption.

In an article published in Geophysical Research Letters, Ayele stated that this “volcanic-tectonic crisis” would eventually shape the morphology of an incipient oceanic rift. He also confirmed that various rupture activities are already occurring in the region.

Nevertheless, completing the entire geological process is expected to take thousands, if not millions, of years. Ayele emphasized that while seismic maps indicate the emergence of an ocean, it will still require an immense amount of time for the transformation to be completed.

As scientists continue to study and observe the developments in the Afar region, the birth of a new ocean remains a fascinating and ongoing phenomenon. The future holds many mysteries and discoveries, shedding light on Earth’s incredible geological processes.