New Ocean May Be Forming In The Desert

Scientists studying a crevasse in the Ethiopian desert say we may be witnessing the birth of a future ocean. In 2005, a 35-mile-long rift broke open as two parts of the African continent separated. Researchers 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. They say it is likely the beginning of a new sea. Host Liane Hansen talks with Professor Cynthia Ebinger of the University of Rochester about the event.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Scientists studying a crevasse in the Ethiopian desert say we may be witnessing the birth of a future ocean. In 2005, a 35-mile-long rift broke open as two parts of the African continent separated. Researchers 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. They say it's likely the beginning of a new sea.

Joining us to talk about this is Cindy Ebinger, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester. And she joins us from NPR member station WXXI. Welcome to the program.

Professor CINDY EBINGER (Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Rochester): Thank you.

HANSEN: How long have you been studying this rift in the Ethiopian desert?

Prof. EBINGER: At the start of this recent activity that started in September 2005, I had actually been doing work with scientists in Ethiopia. Most notably, Atalay Ayele and Gethahine Nurgu(ph). And we had been looking at the area and making some predictions and then the earthquake sequences started. And I came a little bit afterward and put in some seismometers so we could just record then the activity and try and actually track the magma movement.

HANSEN: Now, can you explain exactly how that happens, what exactly is happening with the volcanic magma?

Prof. EBINGER: Well, in this area, Africa and Arabia are splitting apart, and it's not just one straight line - there's actually two parallel zones, and they're about two or three miles wide. And in this case, then, the plates are being pulled apart. But underneath there's little bits of molten rock that are moving upward and they're accumulating quite deep down - maybe ten miles down below the surface. That's the part that we still don't understand completely.

But subsequent to that, we've had 12 additional periods where big, long sheets of magma have risen up and cracked open the rocks lying above. So, really, creating this new ocean floor.

HANSEN: Why is this so unusual?

Prof. EBINGER: It's actually not an unusual process in terms of Earth's history. This process is happening along mid-ocean ridges worldwide. But by the time a ship is mobilized, we may have missed all of this activity. Here, this is one of the few places on the surface of the earth right now where we have this process occurring. So, it's a unique study location.

HANSEN: Yeah, you can see it happening.

Prof. EBINGER: Yes, we can.

HANSEN: So, when do you think there will be a new ocean?

Prof. EBINGER: Buying oceanfront property in the Afar Desert is a bit premature - maybe in another 100,000 years or half a million years, the ocean will be there.

HANSEN: Cindy Ebinger is a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester, and she joined us from NPR member station WXXI. Thank you very much.

Prof. EBINGER: Thank you.

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