Ghostly salt deposits near Afdera volcano testify to ancient inundations in Ethiopia's Afar region. In the past 200,000 years the Red Sea flooded Afar's lowlands at least three times; the salt stayed behind as the seawater evaporated. One day the ersatz seascape will likely become the real thing. Image: Eitan Haddock
- Africa is splitting apart at the seams—literally. From the southern tip of the Red Sea southward through Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, the continent is coming unstitched along a zone called the East African Rift.
- Like a shirtsleeve tearing under a bulging bicep, the earth’s crust rips apart as molten rock from deep down pushes up on the solid surface and stretches it thin—sometimes to its breaking point. Each new slit widens as lava fills the gap from below.
- This spectacular geologic unraveling, already under way for millions of years, will be complete when saltwater from the Red Sea floods the massive gash. Ten million years from now the entire rift may be submerged.
In northeastern Ethiopia one of the earth’s driest deserts is making way for a new ocean. This region of the African continent, known to geologists as the Afar Depression, is pulling apart in two directions—a process that is gradually thinning the earth’s rocky outer skin. The continental crust under Afar is a mere 20 kilometers from top to bottom, less than half its original thickness, and parts of the area are over 100 meters below sea level. Low hills to the east are all that stops the Red Sea from encroaching.
Such proximity to the planet’s scorching interior has transformed the region into a dynamic landscape of earthquakes, volcanoes and hydrothermal fields—making Afar a veritable paradise for people, like me, eager to understand those processes. Yet few outsiders, scientists included, have ever set foot in Afar. Daytime temperatures soar to 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer, and no rain falls for much of the year. But I knew I faced more than treacherous geology and climate. Nasty geopolitical struggles—namely, war between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea—combine with those natural hardships to make Afar utterly inhospitable.