A Huge Crack Just Opened Up In Kenya, Proving That Africa Is Splitting Up

Published April 4, 2018
Published April 4, 2018

A giant crack appeared in Africa and is evidence that the continent is undoubtedly splitting apart.

East African Rift

Google Earth/Forbes East African Rift line where the continent is splitting apart

The earth is constantly changing, though most of the time these changes occur in ways we don’t notice, contributing to an “out of sight of mind” mentality. But sometimes, when a dramatic event takes place, it can’t help capturing our attention.

This is the case with a large crack that has suddenly appeared in Kenya. The crack, which keeps growing, stretches across several miles of south-western area of Kenya known as Suswa. The crack is so large that part of the Nairobi-Narok highway has collapsed as a result.

The main takeaway from this recent development is the evidence it provides: the continent of Africa is splitting in two.

To understand why this is happening, it’s important to know what the East African Rift is. Rifts are the initial stage of a continental breakup and the East African Rift stretches over 1,800 miles south from the Gulf of Aden towards Zimbabwe. Because of the rift, two parts have been created, the Somali plate and the Nubian plate.

Africa Crack

QuartzPart of the crack.

This large crack proved that earthquake-like activity was happening along the eastern branch of the rift. When rifts break up, as is the case here, it can lead to the formation of a new ocean basin.

This type of rift happened 140 million years ago when South America broke off from Africa in the South Atlantic Ocean. If you look at their coastlines, they match like a puzzle piece.

For continental rifting to happen, there needs to be a force strong enough below the surface of the earth (the lithosphere) to cause a break in it. In Africa, this force is a cloak of hot magma (called the “African Superswell”) that is pushing the lithosphere up and weakening it due to the temperature increase. This process causes the breaking and stretching on the surface.

South America Africa

QuartzMaps that show the split of Africa and South America.

Unfortunately, heartbreak will occur as the rift grows larger. As Nubian and Somali plates continue to move apart, earthquakes and erupting volcanoes will become likely consequences.

The south portion of the East African Rift is young, so the potential for this type of activity isn’t high. However, the afar region is covered with volcanic rocks which indicates that the lithosphere is so thin that it’s almost at the point of complete breakup. Solidification of magma in the broken up space will form a new ocean.

Looking towards the future, tens of millions of years from now, seafloor spreading along the entirety of the rift will cause this ocean to flood. The result will be a much smaller African continent. Meanwhile, parts of Ethiopia and Somalia will make up an island in the Indian Ocean.

However, when an event like that is so far away (50 million years), it’s hard to feel a sense of urgency. A giant crack in the earth may garner temporary attention, but the reality is that Africa will likely continue to split in silence.

If you found this interesting, you may also want to read about the two-mile long crack that spontaneously opened in an Arizona desert. Then learn about the astonishing heights of South Africa.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City.