Thursday, November 5, 2009

New ocean forming in African desert

Earlier this year I read a fascinating book by the author Amos Nur called Apocalypse which argued that earthquakes and natural phenomenon have had far more influence on the shaping (or misshaping) of civilization than hitherto given credit, even more than war and politics.
Then today I learn that geologists have confirmed that the African continent is being torn in two, forming a new ocean. An international collaboration has shown that a 35 mile long rift in the Afar region of the Ethiopian desert, which opened in 2005, is likely to be the beginning of a new sea.
The recent study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (well worth signing up for their emailed updates which provide short snippets of the latest initiatives and breakthroughs in scientific research) brings together seismic data from the formation of the rift, showing that it is driven by similar processes to those at the bottom of oceans.
African and Arabian tectonic plates meet in the desert, and have been slowly pulling apart for roughly 30 million years. The same movement has also been parting the Red Sea. But this is only at a speed of less than 1 inch per year.
The sudden cracking in 2005, referred to by geologists as a "mega-dike intrusion", opened up a rift over 20 feet wide in places. The study has found that this happened over only a few days. According to Cindy Ebinger, a co-author of the study from the University of Rochester: "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." (Credit for photo accompanying this post also goes to the University of Rochester).
The investigation was led by Professor Atalay Ayele of Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. As well as Rochester, other groups involved included Eritrea Institute of TechnologyNational Yemen Seismological Observatory CenterUniversity of Leeds, United Kingdom; Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, France; and Columbia University, New York.
"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," said Ebinger. "Because of the unprecedented cross-border collaboration behind this research, we now know that the answer is yes, it is analogous."
One to watch and follow for sure and while Nur's thesis, mentioned above, may not be water-tight accurate it is certainly compelling. A corollory of his analysis however can be proven from this interesting research and that is that despite the serious political difficulties between countries - such as Eritrea and Ethiopia - the search for truth through science and understanding knows no borders and has the power to unite even the bitterest of enemies.

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