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Volcanic African 'unzipping' could see continent divided

Mighty cleft suddenly appears in 'mega dyke intrusion'

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An enormous 35-mile-long rift which "unzipped" in "just days" across the face of Ethiopia has now been confirmed by boffins as the beginning of a process which will see Africa split in two by a new ocean.

Geologists around the world, including some at Leeds Uni in the UK, came together to analyse the startling event in which a volcano named Dabbahu caused the mighty crack to open in the face of the Earth.

Professor Atalay Ayele of Ethiopia's Addis Ababa University teamed up to gather data with colleagues Ghebrebrhan Ogubazghi, professor at the Eritrea Institute of Technology, and Jamal Sholan of the National Yemen Seismological Observatory Center. The three men's analysis chimed well with other international boffinry indicating that following the Dabbahu eruption at the northern end, liquid hot molten magma poured up through the middle of the rift, splitting or "unzipping" the Earth's crust for tens of miles.

Such events, generally taking place deep down on the ocean floor, are thought to be the main process by which the continents gradually march away from each other - as in the original split-up of the ur-continent Gondwana.

Ken Macdonald of UC Santa Barbara - not himself involved in the research, but formerly a big player in the field - explains, terming the unzipping incident a "mega-dyke intrusion".

"This work is a breakthrough in our understanding of continental rifting leading to the creation of new ocean basins," adds the emeritus prof. "For the first time they demonstrate that activity on one rift segment can trigger a major episode of magma injection and associated deformation on a neighboring segment."

In general, with such processes tending to occur miles down at the bottom of deep oceanic trenches, geologists can't really tell what's going on. But the African dyke-intrusion episode, which occurred in 2005, is apparently set to keep boffins satisfied for many years to come.

It seems, according to the scientists, that there's no imminent need for Africans to clear out of the area or decide which side of the incoming sea they want to live on. Although a sustained splitting on the lines of the 2005 incident could see the continent cloven in twain within a few years, this is thought unlikely. In general such rifts take a million years or so to get that far.

There's more from Rochester Uni in America, whose boffins also did sterling work, here. ®

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