March 17, 2023

Challenges of a new African Ocean and Continent



By Owei Lakemfa

AS we sleep, nature is ever awake, working. Even if we snore, it cannot be as loud as the rumbling Mount Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic  Republic of Congo which this week, is threatening to blow out as it did on May 22, 2011. The tragic flood Freddy which is ripping through Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar claiming some 300 lives, is like a drop in the ocean compared to the new ocean nature is burrowing through the continent.

The East African Rift System, EARS, elongating from the Afar area of northern Ethiopia, splitting up countries like Kenya and Tanzania from  parts of Africa has been  found to be separating at seven millimetres per year. 

The most obvious indication of the shifting tectonic plates, created a 35-mile-long rift in the Ethiopian desert in 2005. This was a most revolutionary and extra ordinary occurrence as the tectonic shift that normally took several hundred years,  occurred  in just a few days. 

Geologists point at tell tales of rapid shifts in the bowels of the continent such as the Victoria micro plate, the biggest of its kind on earth; tucked between each side of the rift, it has for two years now, been rotating anti-clock wise. There are also, several active volcanoes in the East African region which are contributing to the breakup of the continent. These include the Ol Doinyo Lengai ‘Mountain of God’ in Tanzania which rises to an elevation of 9,442 feet and has one of the fastest  flowing lava on earth.

 There are the volcano clusters in Ethiopia like  the Aloo Dalapila and the Erta Ale volcano ‘the mountain that smokes’ which has been erupting for over a century.   There are only  five known  volcanoes with lava lakes in the world, this is the most unique; it has  two lava lakes, dating back from 1967.  

Satellite measurements have also showed the slow birth of both a new ocean and a new continent in Africa. Geophysical Research Letters, the authoritative biweekly peer-reviewed geoscience journal published since 1974 said geologists have made two fundamental confirmations; a new ocean is being created in Africa, and the continent as we know it, will split into two.

Christopher Moore of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, in employing satellite radar to monitor the volcanic activity said: “This is the only place on Earth where you can study how continental rift becomes an oceanic rift.” On Africa, he adds: “We can see that oceanic crust is starting to form, because it’s distinctly different from continental crust in its composition and density.”

Cynthia Ebinger, a geophysicist at Tulane University in New Orleans, who is studying the phenomenon revealed: “The hottest inhabited town on the Earth’s surface is in the Afar. Daytime temperatures often go to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and they cool off to a balmy 95 degrees at night.”

Ken Macdonald, a marine geophysicist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains how the new ocean will get its waters: “The Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea will flood in over the Afar region and into the East African Rift Valley and become a new ocean, and that part of East Africa will become its own separate small continent.”

The challenges of having a new ocean in Africa which would slice through the continent creating two distinct continents are quite enormous. It starts with the question; do we need a new ocean? If no, can we still prevent it? If yes, how do we prepare for it including the huge lands that will be yielded to it, the people that would be displaced, countries recreated, merged or new ones that would be born?

Preparations for this future can start with tackling something as mundane as a name for the new ocean.  Africa is bounded in the north by the Mediterranean Sea, the west by the Atlantic Ocean, the east by the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and in the south by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. But none of these bear   its name.

 India Ocean was named after India while  the Atlantic Ocean which until the 19th Century was called the Ethiopian Ocean, was finally called Atlantikôi pelágei or the “Sea of Atlas” named after the Greek god, Atlas. So, since the African Union, AU has not succeeded through diplomatic negotiations or the United Nations to properly rename either the Atlantic Ocean or India Ocean after Africa, maybe the new ocean that may arise in another five or ten million years will be named the African Ocean.  But should we wait for so long?

The earth, about 240 million years ago, was a single supercontinent, known as Pangaea before it slowly splitting into seven continents. Now with mother Africa which gave birth to the six other continents, pregnant again, an eighth continent will be born. The Arabian plate in the last thirty million years has been moving apart from mother Africa leading to the creation of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Birth is usually welcome in Africa. In the case of a child, we tend to fix a special day for the naming ceremony during which we roll out the drums and celebrate. Can we do less if unto us a new continent is born?

Should we be excited that our continent  may become two? Obviously there are advantages such as landlocked Zambia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi having their own coastlines. But the  geologists say the smaller of the emergent continents comprising Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, the eastern parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique where the valley ends, may drift away from the rest of the continent.

Doubtlessly, with a new ocean, there will be far more maritime activities including shipping and fishing and a possible shorter route to other parts of the world. But is this an advantage Africa can take or we would sit back and allow foreigners take advantage and control the new routes and maritime business?

In casting a glance into that far future, there are issues like: would the twin continents remain as one or develop apart like North and South America? What would be the security implications and would trade tie them together as a common entity even if they have become like separated Siamese twins? 

There are many advantages and challenges of Africa splitting into two separate continents with a new ocean between them. But do I have the right to peer into a future millions of years away? I think we really need to discuss that future as it may come earlier than humans think. For now, let us see how far we have gone with the AU Vision 2063.