The rifting of Africa

Lava flows from the 2005 Mando Hararo eruption in Ethiopia.

Alright, I had been attempting to ignore this story because it was, well, a little uninteresting at first, but it apparently has legs so I will tackle it.

Slashdot has a post proclaiming:
'Volcanic activity may split the African continent in two, creating a new ocean, say experts. This is due to a recent geological crack which has appeared in northeastern Ethiopia.'

OK. Where do I start?

This is based on a recent study published in Geophysical Research Lettersthat found that the recent volcanism in Ethiopia is related to the active rifting up and down the east side of the continental - an area already known as the Ethiopian/East African Rift. The continent is known to be pulling apart, forming the valleys and deep lakes (like Lake Malawi and Victoria) that have active volcanoes like Oldoinyo Lengai in them. This is nothing new, we've known that Africa is splitting apart for decades - and the rifting has been going on for millions of years.

From what I can gather from the study, the real find is that the fissures formed during the 2005 eruptions at Mando Hararo in Ethiopia are actually part of that rifting - i.e., the crack is part of the "crack" that is splitting the continent. This is not to say that the rifting is starting NOW due to the crack - rather that the fissure is a new manifestation of the active rifting between Africa and the Arabian subcontinent. As with most fissures in actively rifting area, magma came up the cracks - always nice to have ready-made conduits - so this process of cracking and erupting is akin to what we might expect at a mid-ocean ridge (except, at this point, on a continent).

So yes, at some point in the future, water from likely the Red Sea (also an actively rifting and growing ocean) will spill into the East African Rift system and create a new "ocean." However, this process has been going on for millions of years and to come out and misconstrue the study by Ayele and others in GRL as saying that the activity in 2005 started the rifting or that the crack is the "start" of a new ocean just shows that the mainstream media (a) doesn't know how to read science beyond what other media are saying about it and (b) how quickly the real findings of a study can be lost in the murk of speculation.

More like this

What is most interesting about the 2005 event is how rift-induced dike injection (or is it dike-induced rifting) occurs in fits and starts. This event resulted in "a giant rift opening more than 20 feet in width in just days." That's so much faster than the pace of fingernail growth we tell our 1st year geology students! Rapid, significant ground movement must occur when a dike of several meters across is injected and it is really cool to have well-documented evidence of that.

Although I do agree that fears that East Africa will suddenly be overrun by ocean water are pretty silly.

By Mariek Schmidt (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

Good point, Mariek. The fact that we can see that the event was a point event - not a very gradual opening of the fissure - is very interesting results. It is all part of the active rifting along that whole side of Africa, so to see the rift actually rift in front of our eyes is cool.

Erik, I also read the main story this morning. As I read this I kept thinking of how the lame stream media was missing the whole point to begin with. My thoughts turned to you (ya, pretty odd) and hit copy to send it to you. I opened the blog and you had already posted on it. Hey, the MVP might not have been that tough, as I even got it right as a first year student but your still on top of things. Thanks, Doc.

By Dennis Montgomery (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

I too have seen this "news" in a number of sources, and was fairly disgusted with it. Hoping to do my own write-up later, and link to this. "...the mainstream media (a) doesn't know how to read science beyond what other media are saying about it and (b) how quickly the real findings of a study can be lost in the murk of speculation." Perfect.

As Mariek said, it was big news when a surface crack >55 km long propagated in a few days. We didn't have much direct experience with the rate and scale of continental rifting before that.

I'm surprised at how little information on magma composition has come out, beyond "basaltic" and "silicic". I've seen thin section photos from Philpotts on the web so someone has samples. A non-reviewed site mentioned trachybasalts and peralkaline rhyolites (pantellerites). I'm biased, but this is a great opportunity to explore the role of alkaline vs. subalkaline magmatism at this stage of continental rifting.

At least they avoided the word "OVERDUE" which we know is a favorite around here.
One thing I gleaned from the report is that there is still conflict between the "Gradualist" and "Catastrophy" schools. Sure, the rift is spreading at a rate of 1 inch per year. The San Andreas is slipping at 2 inches a year. But why is anyone suprised when the crack pops for 20 feet all at once after 240 yrs or so? Thats why they call it "crust".
Also, theres no guarentee that the rift wont just as suddenly stop spreading. There are failed rifts all over the place.

Don't blame the media, blame "university communications" at the University of Rochester:

In 2005, a gigantic, 35-mile-long rift broke open the desert ground in Ethiopia. At the time, some geologists believed the rift was the beginning of a new ocean as two parts of the African continent pulled apart, but the claim was controversial.

Also, I got the impression from my skimming of the article that it was an injection of magma into a dike, not a 60-km long surface crack. (The photo with the press release shows a much smaller rift on the surface.) Could anyone with a better grasp of the jargon confirm that?

This is exactly what I mean about the media in point (1) - very few people, whether it is at the Univ of Rochester communications or the mainstream press, understand the science. Now, this problem is two-fold: (1) science education in the US is faltering and (2) science research, with its dependence on publishing in journals only read by other specialists, can become needlessly complex and full of jargon. I'd venture to say that many scientists at major research university wouldn't be able to communicate their findings to the media in an understandable way either. This, in itself, is the problem we have with the antiscientific sentiment in the US: people don't feel like they can EVER understand science. At least there was a time (maybe the 1800s to 1950?) where science was at least perceived to be accessible to everyone.

As for the press release, most of the studies seem indicate that yes, the magma injection was the part that was most interesting with this study and others ... however, the key point was the fact that rifting might be a more sudden event than a gradual one (but likely, it is both).

The way the mainstream media presents science related news imformation, I am surprised that they didn't superimpose a small fishing village developing in the backgorund of their photo showing the dry salt bed, just waiting for the tides to roll in. I guess it wouldn't be news worthy in their eyes if they didn't put an incredible spin on it.

By Dave Pachan (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

So are there any photos of the area where the rift system reaches the Red Sea? It would be neat if one could find ground level evidence that the beach is actually moving inland at that locality at a rate greater than by sea level rise alone, perhaps even faster than my fingernails are growing.

What the mainstream media does however, is make people like me come to scienceblogs and figure out what's really happening. I'm fascinated with the Madrid Fault, and learning about this rift in Africa is piquing my interest just as much. Just because YOU knew about it all along didn't mean that people like me aren't dying to learn about it. Just saying.

You see, my problem isn't that the media is covering the story, but rather how they are covering it (i.e., incorrectly). I'm all for the media covering more science (rather than, lets say, Jon & Kate) but we really need an influx of intelligent, educated science commentators and writers to get it right for the public.

I don't know if it is science literacy or math literacy that is the problem. Rates, fluxes, concentrations, scales, and proportions are FRACTIONS and can be difficult concepts to grasp. These concepts require thinking about multiple variables at once. In East Africa, it is the RATES of processes that are tripping up the media. It's not just the distance/time, there is the SCALE of the African rift and geologic time.

By Mariek Schmidt (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

Way too much blustering about the clueless press. They are science illiterate, so? I'm much more interested in the effects and potential for sudden eruption and massive volcanic gas and dust emissions from flood basalt areas.

This one is on my radar, that's why I passed on the link yesterday, regarding the mysterious volcanic eruption that left a large SO2 signal in ice at both poles, circa 1810 or thereabouts. I went looking for a potential, remote target active in the following decades, situated near the equator.

The trouble with bloggers...

...Is that they hate the Mainstream Media to the point they don't know what it is anymore. Since when is "Mother Nature News" mainstream? Or a user submitted blurb to Slashdot about an article in Cosmos Magazine? Or Science Daily, which is actually a reposting of the original press release. Press releases are to news as advertisements are product reviews. They don't report to the public, they advertise to journalists to report. If you can't tell the difference, then maybe you shouldn't be hosted by a magazine.

The source that is the most "mainstream" that picked this up is Live Science, which you seem to have ignored, got it mostly right.

The lede, "A 35-mile rift in the desert of Ethiopia will likely become a new ocean eventually, researchers now confirm," is (gasp) accurate. Apart from the somewhat vague use of the term "spawn" in the second graf, it doesn't imply that the rift is causing the spreading. In fact it says that the "processes creating the rift are nearly identical to what goes on at the bottom of oceans."

Live Science is distributed to actual "mainstream" websites such as Fox News (,2933,571347,00.html?test=latestnews), meaning that in this case the "mainstream" media got it right! (gasp gasp)

You see, again people seem to miss my point. I was not attempting to condemn allmedia, but rather the fact that there is a pervasive trend to poor science journalism across the news. This is not to say that every last source is bad, and heck, some of them get a story right every once in a while. However, you can't argue with the fact that a majority of news sources - whether it be "classic" news sources or new media - get these things wrong or propagate incorrect information.

I have a question that has nothing to do with rifts. With all of the recent volcanic activity, will we have a harsher winter than last year?

By Mary L. B (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink

We're overdue for a really harsh winter.
Lousy journalism is the cause of a lot of problems. Without bad reporters, we wouldnt have Corporate Spokesmen or Slimy Politicians. I know a few folks who absolutely refuse to talk to reporters due to the inaccuracies of their previous reports. And the reporters are sincerely trying to do a good job. They cant be experts in everything they are required to write about. And they arent allowed to act like they dont know, or else.
I doubt Erik could do a blog every week on a different science and get everything right.

Sorry EK, I'm afraid it's the excitement that people want to hear. Even the wife knows that there is almost never a geology story in the newspaper unless AGU is in town, and then it's like 3 paragraphs about how we are "overdue" for a major earthquake. At least volcanoes get mentioned, even if inaccurately in the media. When hydrology gets covered, all they care about is dams.

Putting the egregious grammatical error in your response's second sentence aside, (I assume you mean "I was NOT attempting to condemn all media...") I didn't miss your point; you didn't make that point in the original post.

You said in your original post; "However, this process has been going on for millions of years and to come out and misconstrue the study by Ayele and others in GRL as saying that the activity in 2005 started the rifting or that the crack is the "start" of a new ocean just shows that the mainstream media (a) doesn't know how to read science beyond what other media are saying about it and (b) how quickly the real findings of a study can be lost in the murk of speculation."

By making a blanket statement and not including any of the necessary caveats or reservations regarding who your actual target is, you disparage ALL "mainstream media." At no point in that statement, or the entire post, do you say that your target is specifically the inaccurate sources, none of which could be reasonably said to be "mainstream" anyways. This is akin to saying because a few scientists have at times falsified data, ALL scientists falsify their data.

It's not incorrect to criticize bad reporting, but it is incorrect to say that bad reporting by two small outlets and a press release as indicative of the entire media. Especially when you ignore the fact that the most mainstream source (Live Science) got it right.

Bad writing like this is why editors were invented.

If you're using "we" in the royal sense, then clearly yes.

I hear what you're saying Erik, but what is keeping scientists from becoming good mainstream media reporters? Would you like to stop doing research so you could write an article for the mainstrem media? Who is supposed to want to take that job?

That is a good question, k8. We need to make these careers seem more attractive to young scientists - not everyone needs to be doing research all the time. However, convincing people not to become your advisor or mentor is sometimes difficult. Any ideas?

The problem is, nobody (me included) would read an article on newscientist site if it were titled "Just another crack in Africa". Most people read for amusement, not education.

Why all the fascination with the East African Rift Valley when you've got Lake Baikal in Central Asia? What amounts to a fresh water ocean for crying out loud, complete with black smokers and all.

But where does a person go to buy up someday-to-be-oceanfront property there?

Erik wrote: "fact that there is a pervasive trend to poor science journalism across the news."

That's like saying there's a pervasive trend to bipedalism across humanity.