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Headlines Published on 16 February 2007

Title Researchers scratch the Earth’s surface to get a closer look at seismic activity

Tremors have long wreaked havoc across the globe and Africa has not been left without a scratch. Evidence shows that the rift valley in Ethiopia is expanding, albeit at a slow rate. Enter a group of international researchers, led by Dr Tim Wright, a geophysicist at the University of Leeds, who successfully clinched a €3.79 million grant from the National Environment Research Council (NERC) in the UK to study seismic activities that occur in the Afar desert of Northern Ethiopia.

A surveyor from the Ethiopian Mapping Agency examines a ground rupture created during the September rifting event.  © Tim Wright
A surveyor from the Ethiopian Mapping Agency examines a ground rupture created during the September rifting event.
© Tim Wright
The rift valley in Ethiopia is where the African and Arabian tectonic plates - two continent crust shelves - meet and trigger cataclysmic activity. One of the biggest events ever to hit the region was in September 2005 when hundreds of deep crevices emerged over a short period.

Apart from dealing with ground parts that shifted eight metres, the region was dealt a huge blow when more than two billion cubic metres of magma oozed into a crack between the two tectonic plates, triggering an even bigger separation.

This study affords the 28 researchers the chance to better understand the development and movement of continents. “Much of the activity between the continental shelves takes place deep underwater at the mid-ocean ridges,” said Dr Wright. “Ethiopia is the only place on the planet where we can see a continent splitting apart on dry land.”

The researchers will use satellite radar to measure changes in the ground. “In its simplest form, you are taking two snapshots of the same place, separated by a period of time, to see how far they have moved apart,” the team leader said. Other instruments to be used to uncover the properties of rock and magma, and to monitor the crust’s movement, include GPS and seismometers. The team will use the information they collect to set up a 3D computer model of how magma moves through the Earth’s crust to create and destroy continents.

An interesting observation is that when the gap between the two tectonic plates expands, the gap fills with magma that later cools forming new land. The researchers claim that the Red Sea may potentially flood the sinking region in about 1 million years. The end result would be a new Africa.

“It’s very exciting because we’re witnessing the birth of a new ocean,” explained Dr Wright. “We don’t know what is going to happen, but we believe that it may turn parts of Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea into an island, before a much larger land mass the horn of Africa breaks off from the continent.”

Researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol and Edinburgh, in addition to researchers from universities in France, New Zealand, Ethiopia and the US are participating in the project. A significant aspect of this programme is that Ethiopian scientists will obtain European know-how in the use of satellite and radar technology.

More information:

  • NERC
  • Other seismology projects on Europa

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