Africa Is Physically Splitting Into Two Continents

Earth has seven continents — any third grader can tell you that. But that won't be the case forever. Africa is on track to split into two continents, but there's no need to freak out. Yet, anyway.

Related Video: Africa Is Creating a New Ocean

You're Crackin' Me Up

On March 19, 2018, geologists confirmed a big ol' crack in the Earth that split the Nairobi-Narok highway. The photos look like the end of days, as the crack was a staggering 50 feet (15 meters) deep and more than 50 feet wide.

What's happening here? News of this crevasse in March renewed conversation about the continent of Africa breaking into two. Believe it; it's true. In northeastern Africa, the continent is slowly cracking into what will eventually become two separate land masses, not unlike how Africa and South America once fit together like puzzle pieces. But whether that cracking caused this crack is up for debate.

While the crack seems terrifyingly urgent, it's a bit misleading. Scientists have known for quite some time that Africa is splitting, thanks to tectonic plate action. You probably know that the Earth's lithosphere, which is formed by the crust and the upper part of the mantle, is broken up into multiple tectonic plates. These plates slowly glide around, bumping up against each other in some instances and stretching to the point of tearing in others. That's exactly what's going on here: The African plate is ripping itself in two, between the Nubian and Somalian plates. The East African Rift Valley, which stretches 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) from the Gulf of Aden to Zimbabwe, is where that'll occur.

While that process could be the underlying reason for the crack in Kenya, it's most likely expressing itself now due to heavy rainfall on the already weakened crust, not necessarily full-fledged plate separation. As the Guardian points out, similar results from erosion have been seen in tectonically stable regions like Arizona.

It's Time We Broke Up

As for when we'll have two separate Africas? Not for a while. The rifting in northeastern Africa began about 25 million years ago and will take 50 million more years to totally break off at the current rate of spreading (which is just a few millimeters per year). When it's finished, Earth will have a big new island in the Indian Ocean. Making up this island will be parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania.

As for now, there's nothing we can do except sit back and watch. Geologist David Ahede tells Daily Nation, "You cannot stop a geological process because it occurs from deep within the crust of the Earth." In the meantime, the East African Rift is giving scientists a pretty fascinating look at the different stages of rifting in real-time.

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For more on how the ground is changing beneath our feet, check out "Plate Tectonics: An Insider's History Of The Modern Theory Of The Earth" by Naomi Oreskes. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto April 6, 2018

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