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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.
Now, scientists from several countries have confirmed that the volcanic processes at work beneath the Ethiopian rift are nearly identical to those at the bottom of the world's oceans, and the rift is indeed likely the beginning of a new sea.
The new study, published in the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters, suggests that the highly active volcanic boundaries along the edges of tectonic ocean plates may suddenly break apart in large sections, instead of little by little as has been predominantly believed. In addition, such sudden large-scale events on land pose a much more serious hazard to populations living near the rift than would several smaller events, says Cindy Ebinger, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study.
"This work is a breakthrough in our understanding of continental rifting leading to the creation of new ocean basins," says Ken Macdonald, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and who is not affiliated with the research. "For the first time they demonstrate that activity on one rift segment can trigger a major episode of magma injection and associated deformation on a neighboring segment. Careful study of the 2005 mega-dike intrusion and its aftermath will continue to provide extraordinary opportunities for learning about continental rifts and mid-ocean ridges."
"The whole point of this study is to learn whether what is happening in Ethiopia is like what is happening at the bottom of the ocean where it's almost impossible for us to go," says Ebinger. "We knew that if we could establish that, then Ethiopia would essentially be a unique and superb ocean-ridge laboratory for us. Because of the unprecedented cross-border collaboration behind this research, we now know that the answer is yes, it is analogous."