A large crack that is already several miles long and growing has appeared in Kenya, sparking fears that Africa could eventually split in half.
The rift continues to grow and an expert says it’s evidence that the continent is breaking apart.
The crack has been accompanied by seismic activity and it has caused part of the Nairobi-Narok highway in in south-western Kenya to collapse, said Dr Lucia Perez Diaz.
Over a period of tens of millions of years, she said, the tear will become so big that the ocean will flood in and parts of Ethiopia and Somalia, including the Horn of Africa, will become an island, separating them from the mainland.
Dr Diaz, a postdoctoral researcher at the Fault Dynamics Research Group, at Royal Holloway, University of London, has written an article for the Conversation explaining how Africa will split apart.
She said tectonic plates in the Earth’s crust and upper mantle can create a rift when they rupture, and an active example is the East African Rift Valley where the crack has appeared.
Ms Perez Diaz wrote: “The East African Rift Valley stretches over 3,000km [1,800 miles] from the Gulf of Aden in the north towards Zimbabwe in the south, splitting the African plate into two unequal parts: the Somali and Nubian plates.
“Activity along the eastern branch of the rift valley, running along Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, became evident when the large crack suddenly appeared in south-western Kenya.”
Rifts are the initial stage of a continental break-up and, if successful, can lead to the formation of a new ocean basin, she added.
The scenario played out when a huge land mass broke in two, creating what’s now known as South America and Africa around 138 million years ago.
The process called continental rifting involves a large “magma plume” which forces the Earth’s crust upwards, causing it to weaken and break apart.
Researchers have found evidence of a hotter-than-normal plume – called the “African Superswell” – in the rift valley.
The rift that has appeared in Kenya is spreading at just a few millimetres per year
Dr Perez Diaz wrote: “Eventually, over a period of tens of millions of years, seafloor spreading will progress along the entire length of the rift.
“The ocean will flood in and, as a result, the African continent will become smaller and there will be a large island in the Indian Ocean composed of parts of Ethiopia and Somalia, including the Horn of Africa.”
She added: “Dramatic events, such as sudden motorway-splitting faults or large catastrophic earthquakes may give continental rifting a sense of urgency but, most of the time, it goes about splitting Africa without anybody even noticing.”