A crack in the Earth’s crust – which could be the forerunner to a new ocean – ripped open in just days in 2005, a new study suggests.
It began to open up in September 2005, when a volcano at the northern end of the rift, called Dabbahu, erupted.
The magma inside the volcano did not reach the surface and erupt as a fountain of lava – instead, it was diverted into the continental rift underground. The magma cooled into a wedge-shaped “dike” that was then uplifted, rupturing the surface and creating a 500-metre-long, 60-metre-deep crack.
While the Mount Dabbahu rift is still hundreds of kilometres inland, Ebinger says it could continue to widen and lengthen. “As the plates keep spreading apart, it will end up looking like the Red Sea,” she says.
Eventually it could reach the east coast of Ethiopia and fill up with seawater.
Ebinger says this won’t happen any time soon – it would take around 4 million years for the crack to reach the size of the Red Sea. Other areas in the Afar region are below sea level, however, and could see flooding before that if similar rifting occurs near the coastal volcanoes to the north and east that form a natural levy against the sea.