Discover Why Scientists Are Convinced a New Ocean Will Form in Africa

Written by Eliana Riley
Updated: November 15, 2023
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  • Scientists are convinced a new ocean will form in Africa because tectonic plates on the eastern side of the country seem to be inching further apart, potentially causing a split.

Currently, there are five oceans and seven continents recognized by the United States. However, a new ocean and continent could form in the next few million years. On the eastern side of Africa, tectonic plates below the earth’s surface seem to be inching further away from one another every year.

Although scientists are still unsure of the consequences of this movement, they do speculate that Africa could split. As a result, a new ocean would be introduced to the world. In addition, landlocked countries in Africa could gain their own coastlines. Discover why scientists believe a new ocean is forming in Africa and find out who will be affected by this geological phenomenon.

Did you know that tectonic plates below Africa are moving away from one another?

©wael alreweie/Shutterstock.com

Where is Africa Located?

Africa is a continent that lies within both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. However, most of Africa’s landmass resides in the Eastern Hemisphere. In addition, the continent crosses the line between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Therefore, Africa is the only continent on Earth that lies in all four hemispheres. Moreover, the continent lies below Europe and to the west of Asia and Australia. Examples of countries found in Africa include Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia, and more.

What Oceans Surround Africa?

The Atlantic Ocean borders Africa to the west, separating it from both the North and South American continents. The Southern Ocean touches the southern portion of the continent, along countries like South Africa. In addition, the Indian Ocean lies to the southeast, and the country of Madagascar resides in the Indian Ocean as an island.

The northern portion of the continent is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, which separates Africa from Italy, Greece, and other European countries. Furthermore, the Strait of Gibraltar lines the border between Spain and Morocco. Finally, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden separate Africa from the Middle East.

The Indian Ocean lies to the southeast of Africa and features islands like the beautiful Seychelles.

©22Images Studio/Shutterstock.com

What are Tectonic Plates and How Do They Move?

Tectonic plates are also called lithospheric plates, which are huge slabs of rock that move below Earth’s surface. In fact, the mountains, valleys, volcanoes, and other immense geological features we recognize today are typically the result of plate tectonics. Tectonic plates are typically made up of oceanic and continental lithosphere. Furthermore, these plates measure between several hundred and several thousand miles wide. The plates may measure between nine and 125 miles thick.

Furthermore, variations in the weight, width, and thickness of certain plates correlate to what kind of plate they are. For instance, plates below landmasses, called continental plates, are typically lightweight but thick. On the other hand, oceanic plates are heavier and thinner than continental plates. Since continental crust must account for changes in elevation well above sea level, continental plates must be thicker to support these geological features.

In addition, scientists determine where plate boundaries lie based on volcanic and earthquake activity. The movement of plates below the earth’s crust often results in these two phenomena. Therefore, tracking where earthquakes and volcanoes occur most frequently helps researchers determine where plates are located. In turn, the discovery of these plate boundaries also aids researchers in predicting future plate movements and geological anomalies. Such predictions include the possibility of a new ocean forming in Africa.

Damage to roads following an earthquake

Areas in which earthquake and volcanic activity are concentrated usually include tectonic plates.

©iStock.com/hapabapa

Is a New Ocean Forming in Africa?

To understand whether a new ocean is forming in Africa, we must look at the East African Rift System (EARS). EARS was discovered in Ethiopia in 2005 and is located near the eastern coast of Africa. In simple terms, EARS describes a process of old plates splitting from one another as new plates form. In essence, EARS is a fracture in Africa that gradually widens. The plates that seem to be shifting away from one another include the Nubian (African) Plate and the Somalian Plate. In addition, both plates appear to be moving away from the northern Arabian plate.

What does EARS have to do with the creation of a new ocean? As these plates separate, they could move portions of Africa’s landmass away from the connected continent. In other words, countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania, or Kenya could eventually split, separated from the remainder of Africa. In their former place, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden will flood the region between Africa and the new continent, creating a new ocean.

If this occurred, countries along EARS could become a massive island, perhaps a separate continent. Moreover, a new ocean would border either side of the landmass. However, the splitting of Africa would take between five and 10 million years to accomplish, as the plates are moving at a rate between 0.2 inches and one inch per year. Therefore, the scientists that predict this geological phenomenon would not see it completed in their lifetime.

East Africa Rift System GPS and stresses map

This map displays the East African Rift System and the Nubian and Somalian Plates.

©

Geological Features of the East African Rift System Visible Today

The movement of the Nubian, Somalian, and Arabian Plates has resulted in several geological features that are visible in modern times. For instance, the movement of the Arabian Plate away from Africa formed the Red Sea. As a result, the Red Sea ultimately separated Africa from the Middle East.

In addition, the Great Rift Valley lies along the boundaries of EARS. The Great Rift Valley includes geological features like ribbon lakes, which are lakes that appear elongated. Moreover, the Great Rift Valley includes various trenches, which stretch between 4,000 and 4,300 miles long. As plates below EARS continue to shift and change, the trenches and ribbon lakes of the Great Rift Valley will likely widen.

Considering which geological features are present today from the movement of EARS, it’s not impossible to comprehend the separation of the African continent. If plate movement can create the expansive Great Rift Valley and the Red Sea, it could surely form a new ocean over the next few million years.

Aerial view of Nile River, Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan as seen from space. Satellite view. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Movement of EARS helped form the Red Sea and the Great Rift Valley.

©Emre Akkoyun/Shutterstock.com

Who Will Be Affected by the Movement of Tectonic Plates in Africa?

Unfortunately, many residents of countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania will have to decide whether to live on the main African continent or the new mega-island. The movement of EARS will likely displace many people and separate families. Traveling between countries will prove challenging if practically one-third of the African continent lies on the other side of a new ocean.

In addition, the movement of EARS will disrupt animal species and ecosystems as well as human life. For one, habitat fragmentation and habitat loss will likely result from Africa’s split. Animals on the main African continent may be displaced from their former homes on the new continent, and vice versa. Moreover, the introduction of new trade routes and commercial fishing in the new ocean may also put a strain on certain marine environments. Therefore, animal life may suffer a greater impact of EARS than humans will.

While these effects can be devastating, some results of the tectonic shift may bring prosperity to Africa. By allowing certain countries, such as Uganda, their own coastline through the introduction of a new ocean, trade opportunities will increase. Ports and harbors can open along the new ocean and accept imports from all over the world. Moreover, the addition of a new coastline can allow for commercial fishing, which can support the economies of landlocked countries.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © leolintang/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Eliana Riley is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on geography, travel, and landmarks. Eliana is a second-year student at Miami University majoring in English Education and Spanish. A resident of Tennessee and Ohio, Eliana enjoys traveling to national and state parks, hiking, kayaking, and camping.

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