With a land area of close to 12 million square miles, Africa is the second largest continent on Earth. Last month, a massive crack began to form in the eastern part of the continent — a rather conspicuous and frightening sign that Africa is splitting in two. Or was it?
The enormous crack, which is said to be 50 feet deep and stretch for several miles, appeared in south-western Kenya a few weeks ago. The tear has already wreaked havoc in the area, causing a section of the Nairobi-Narok highway to collapse.
Media outlet Face 2 Face Africa, reported that the crack appeared after heavy rains in the region. But the formation of the massive fissure was also supposedly accompanied by localized seismic activity. Upon first impressions, this led many to believe that the crack may be an immediate and direct result of the African continent splitting in two.
Most scientists do agree that Africa will indeed split apart, millions of years from now. A new body of water will form, that will divide the two freshly separated pieces of land. A process known as ‘rifting’ is behind this catastrophic future split.
What is Rifting?
Just to cover the sciency stuff and preface the story that is to follow, cracks do form in the region, and they are indeed a symptom of the rifting that occurs there. In simple terms, rifts form when slabs of land move away from each other and thin out. Like pulling a piece of toast in opposite directions with force, the Earth’s crust eventually fractures.
Eastern Africa is home to what’s known as the ‘East African Rift System’. The rift system lurks below the nations of Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. So, albeit unhurriedly, cracks forming in Eastern Africa are not uncommon.
Initial Media Reports Confuse Readers
Unfortunately, headlines from many news outlets have only served to confuse people about what’s happening in Kenya. While many articles go on to explain that a splitting of the continent would take millions of years, the initial implication was that an instantaneous seismic event, associated with the rifting, has caused the crack now observed in Kenya.
An article by Dr Lucia Perez Diaz, often quoted by media outlets to support their more excitable phrasings, may have lead one to arrive at that conclusion. Interestingly, a statement at the end of that very article reads, “This article was updated and the headline changed on April 7 to reflect ongoing discussion by geologists about the cause of the large crack that appeared on the East Africa Rift and whether its location is related to the African continent split.” So, maybe the crack will not be responsible for ripping the continent in two after all, as some have suggested.
Interestingly, a recent article published by Forbes entitled, ‘Scientists Are Not Happy How Media Reported The Kenya Crack’ stated, “The proposed explanation that the fissure is evidence of Africa splitting apart, driven by mysterious tectonic forces deep within, sure is appealing.” However, as the article continues to explain, the chasm is not of tectonic origins at all.
So, What Actually Happened in Kenya?
What happened in Kenya was not caused by instantaneous seismic activity. Rather, according to Dr Stephen Hicks, postdoctoral research fellow in seismology at the University of Southampton, “Given the evidence available at present, the best and simplest explanation is that this crack was in fact formed by erosion of soil beneath the surface due to recent heavy rains in Kenya.”
Why the erosion took the form it did is related to the area’s unique surface geology. The layers of earth in the area are made up of unconsolidated, volcanic materials. Recent droughts have caused the uppermost layers of earth to dry out and become hard. But during recent heavy rain events, rainwater infiltrating below this layer and flowing underground carved out large cavities. Finally, the uppermost superficial layer collapsed, revealing the large chasms on the surface.
The opening paragraph of the adjusted article by Dr Perez Diaz reads, “Initially, the appearance of the crack was linked to tectonic activity along the East African Rift.” But, the article continues, “geologists now think that this feature is most likely an erosional gully.”
So, in summary — yes, the African continent is splitting apart. But no, it will not happen overnight; and the crack that appeared in Kenya has a tangential relationship to tectonic activity, at best. It was caused by heavy rain and flash flooding removing sections of unstable earth.
If you do want evidence and proof that the giant split is happening, look no further than the colossal escarpments and volcanic activity in the region. Much like the revised explanation for the appearance of the Kenyan crack, however, it’s nowhere near as sensational.