Emerging Ocean: The Birth of a New Landscape in Africa’s Hostile Afar Region


In 2005, the Afar region experienced a series of 420 earthquakes and volcanic activity, resulting in the formation of a 60-kilometer-long fissure. This region is known for its extreme and inhospitable conditions, making it one of the most challenging places to conduct scientific research. Despite its harsh environment, this area might be the birthplace of a new ocean, dividing the continent of Africa.

Initially, experts estimated that the process of creating a new ocean would take anywhere from 5 to 10 million years. However, recent scientific findings suggest that it might happen much sooner. Geoscientist Cynthia Ebinger, who has been studying this phenomenon since the 1980s, believes that the timeline could be shortened to 1 million years, or possibly even less.

Ebinger, a researcher at Tulane University in the US, has become an authority on the subject. Her vast knowledge and expertise are evident in her numerous publications, which have been cited over 16,000 times by her colleagues. In 2023 alone, she published seventeen papers, most of which delve into the newly formed oceanic channel in the Afar region.

The Afar region is situated on the boundaries of three tectonic plates: the Arabian, the African (also known as Nubian), and the Somalian. Ebinger’s research focuses on the effects of magma on the Ethiopian plateau, with particular emphasis on the Ethiopian highlands and the larger East African region. She explains that an underground volcano in Ethiopia is blocking a significant body of saltwater from passing through, which could contribute to the formation of a new ocean.

The convergence of the Somalian plate to the east, the African plate to the west, and the Arabian plate to the northeast exerts immense pressure on a smaller plate called the Victoriana. As the rupture in this plate collision widens, a portion of the Somali plate may separate and move towards the Indian Ocean, creating space for the emergence of a new ocean. However, Ebinger clarifies that while many refer to it as a new ocean, this is not always the case.

The 2005 mega-event serves as substantial evidence for this theory. A series of earthquakes and volcanic activity occurred near a desolate region in Ethiopia, resulting in ash being released into the air. In 2009, Ethiopian geophysicist Atalay Ayele led a research effort that identified three magma sources in the Dabbahu-Gab’ho and Ado’Ale volcanic complexes. The largest of these sources contributed to the formation of the fissure.

Ayele’s research, published in the scholarly journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggests that this “volcanic-tectonic crisis” will eventually shape the morphology of an incipient oceanic rift. Ayele states that numerous rupture activities are already underway, contributing to the formation of new mountain ranges like the Alps as the Eurasian and African plates collide.

Despite these significant developments, the whole geological process of forming a new ocean will take an incredibly long time. Ayele believes that while the seismic map indicates the emergence of an ocean, it will likely take millions and millions of years for this transformation to be complete.

In conclusion, the Afar region’s seismic activity in 2005, including 420 earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, created a 60-kilometer-long fissure. This event, along with ongoing geological processes, may give rise to a new ocean that could potentially divide the continent of Africa. Scientists like Cynthia Ebinger and Atalay Ayele have devoted years of research to understanding this phenomenon, shedding light on the complex forces at play deep within the Earth’s crust. While the birth of a new ocean is an intriguing prospect, it remains an incredibly slow and gradual process that will unfold over millions of years.