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article imageIt only took days for a giant crack to form in Afar Ethiopia

By Stephanie Dearing     Nov 8, 2009 in Science
If anyone had been on site with a camera during the event, the formation of a giant crack in the north of Ethiopia in 2005 could have been a scene for the upcoming apocalypse movie 2012.
A preview from the soon-to-be-released movie 2012 shows the earth splitting wide open as a family frantically stays barely one step ahead of the massive rift forming suddenly and oh so dramatically. Couldn't possibly happen in real life, right? New research from a crack that formed in Africa, just published last week, shows that the scene from 2012 might not be so far from reality.
The crack, which formed in a remote part of Ethiopia, is speculated to be the beginnings of a new ocean, caused by two continental plates moving away from each other. In the past, it was thought that rifts formed slowly, so scientists were astounded when their reconstruction of the events that created the Afar rift showed that the reality was quite different. One of the lead researchers of the team based out of the Addis Ababa University, Cindy Ebinger said "The ferocity of what we saw during this episode stunned everyone." Ebinger is with New York's University of Rochester. It is thought that it will take four million years for the crack to reach the Red Sea and fill with ocean water. The crack, or rift as it is called, is 35 miles long.
The implications of the new knowledge of how the Afar rift formed are huge. The theory that had been in force held that tectonic ocean plates would separate slowly and cause small breaks. According to Ebinger, "... such sudden large-scale events on land pose a much more serious hazard to populations living near the rift than would several smaller events."
The scientists explained that "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."
The process that created the rift in the Afar region in 2005 is also at work in the Red Sea. The international team studying the rift have come to conclude that the process that created the crack is also the process that creates similar rifts in the ocean floors. The crack formed when Dabbahu volcano erupted in 2005. Volcanic eruptions in the Afar region continue to this day. The region is also a hotbed of study for scientists from all around the world.
The Afar region is known for being the place where the remains of Lucy were found. It is home to two volcanoes, and is said to be the hottest place on earth. The region regularly experiences drought.
The findings were published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal last week. Led by Ethiopian scientist, Atalay Ayele, the research team had members from Eritrea, Yemen, the United Kingdom, the United States and France.
More about Afar region ethiopia, Rift, 2012, New ocean form, Red sea
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