Fissures in Africa

Pictures of an enormous fissure in Kenya’s East African Rift Valley have gone viral in recent weeks along with breathless reports about how part of the African continent is splitting away. And while Africa is splitting – very, very slowly – this crack, impressive as it is, may not have anything to do with it. Geologists familiar with the area are confident that the fissure is the result of recent torrential rains and flooding – not fresh seismic activity. For one, there have been no earthquakes in this area stretching back for several years. One theory is that the crack had actually been present for quite some time but was filled with softer volcanic ash that’s been swept away by the rains. Geologists will need to study it more closely to be certain.

One thing geologists agree on, though, is that the tectonic plates that make up Africa are slowly pulling apart, or rifting. (That’s why the area is known as a rift valley in the first place.) This happens as mantle convection causes two land masses to move away from one another. That’s happening right now along a fault running through Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania, and it’s happened before. A similar rift caused the South American and African continents to separate. This doesn’t mean that the countries in East Africa are in danger of being parted by ocean any time soon, though. Geologists predict it will take on the order of 50 million years for the break to happen. (Image credit: Getty Images; Reuters/T. Mukoya; DailyNation)

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