Africa is splitting in two and it will change the map of the world

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Map of Africa (Image: courtesy of Pixabay)

When we hear of the map of our world changing, many certainly think of China breaching new boundaries, Russia adding other territories to her land mass, or North and South Korea embracing new dynamics that affect their maps. What we are talking about is happening in Africa, both on the surface and beneath the earth. Let us start this discussion with some general geographical and sociological information about Africa. It is the second largest continent in the world with 30.2 million square kilometers and is the continent with the largest number of recognized countries (54). The Sahara in the north is the largest and hottest desert in the world with 3.6 million square miles. The continent has the longest river in the world – the Nile River which flows from Egypt to Uganda and measures 6,650 kilometers. Africa is also home to the largest land mammal – the African elephant – and the fastest land mammal – the cheetah. The highest mountain on the continent is Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, with a height of 5,895 meters and the same mountain is the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Africa has more than 3,000 distinct ethnic groups and more than 2,000 spoken languages. With approximately 1.2 billion people, Africa is the most populous continent after Asia and has the most rapidly growing population in the world.

A colossal break up is happening in Africa, the most obvious evidence of which is the East African Rift (EAR) or East African Rift System (EARS) which is an active continental rift zone in East Africa, that started between 22 to 25 million years ago. This rift is a developing divergent tectonic plate boundary where the African Plate is in the process of splitting into two tectonic plates, called the Somali Plate and the Nubian Plate, at a rate of six to seven millimeters per year.  A smaller eastern part of Africa is separating from the largest or remaining part marked by a long depression that runs through the following 10 countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, DR Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. The Rift extends from Jordan in southwestern Asia southward through eastern Africa to Mozambique. It measures about 4,000 miles (6,400 km) long and averages 30–40 miles (48–64 km) wide and became visible in the Ethiopian desert around 2005. In 2018, it showed up in the form of a large crack in the Kenyan Valley, catching the attention of the whole world. That rift was caused by a fracturing on the earth’s crust. It is called a great tectonic feature, and a tectonic plate itself can be explained as “a massive, irregularly shaped slab of solid rock, generally composed of both continental and oceanic lithosphere”. So, the Earth’s thin outer layer is in fact made of big pieces called tectonic plate which fit together like a puzzle. They are not stuck in one place but are floating on the earth’s mantle, the most solid bulk of the earth’s interior. The Earth’s mantle is a thick layer of rock that lies between the crust and the outer core of the earth. There are seven major tectonic plates in the world. So, a rift like the East African one occurs when tectonic plates move apart and create divergent boundaries and the earth’s crust or outer layer starts to get thin.

The African plate is splitting into two. The smaller one is the Somali plate and the larger one, the Nubian plate and scientists say that these two parts of the African continent are pulling apart at a snail’s pace of millimeters per year. Kenya has already started splitting into two, and an ocean will run into the divide in the future. The Rift Valley or land depression keeps extending and will ultimately become home to a new body of water which might be a lake, a basin or a new ocean. If the crack or Rift Valley continues its evolution, millions of years from now, landlocked countries like Zambia and Uganda will have their own coast lines.

Climate change and the melting of glaciers is the main factor behind that fissure whose history can be traced back to 130 million years ago when South America and Africa were divided into two continents or to be more precise, a continent (Africa) and a subcontinent (South America). A careful look at the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America shows that they fit together. For the past 30 million years, the Arabian plate has been drifting away from Africa and that process created the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Geologist and climate change expert, Jackson, explains that the melting of glaciers creates an imbalance in weight between the continent and the ocean floor and that generates a movement that aims at producing a balance because naturally, the ocean plate is heavier than the continent plate. That phenomenon or movement is called “isostatic adjustment”. Africa is bounded by the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. According to scientists the three tectonic plates in Africa are moving away from each other at different speeds. So, in the next 45 to 50 million years, a split will be completed with certain countries moving towards the east while others will be moving towards the west. Today’s Africa will, therefore, become two continents, with the emergence of an eigth continent and the sixth ocean that might be named “the African Ocean”. Present day Somalia and parts of Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania will break away from the rest of the continent. That radical change in the Earth’s landscape will come with both positive and disruptive consequences. The emergence of new coast lines will open new economic, technological opportunities and more maritime activities for some countries, as well as a new geopolitical world map. There is the possibility of new nations forming, old nations merging or completely breaking apart and some questions remain: will this be an advantage for Africa or will it allow foreigners to control the new routes and maritime business among other opportunities? If we look into the distant future, will the two continents remain connected, or will they split up like North and South America? Will trade bind them together? What will be the security implications? Africa is already the most impacted continent when it comes to populations displacement and this phenomenon is likely to cause more displacement of communities. This rift will certainly put pressure on resources, fauna, flora, and environmental degradation will certainly heighten. Rapid urbanization will lead to a scarcity of water, energy and food. The “departure of East Africa will undoubtedly be another page in the giant geological world story book.

Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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  1. Enjoyed reading it.

    The story is futuristic b
    ut brought a whole lot of info to open the mind as to the future of Africa when we would be far far gone and forgotten. But the impact would be there all the same for our grand grand grand futuristic kids.

  2. So many unanswered question!
    May the consequences be positive for mother Africa. Borders and disunity exist only in the mind.

    1. This is superb! I hope our scientists are looking into it and beginning to figure out what this means for us as Africans!

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