In the middle of the Ethiopian desert, a 35-mile-long (56 km) gash cuts through the earth, the product of tectonic activity in 2005. A team publishing in Geophysical Research Letters argues that the rift is an analogue for what happens on the ocean floor, where volcanic activity pushes tectonic plates apart in sudden, massive geologic events. This idea runs contrary to slow-and-gradual notions of tectonic movement that were previously accepted.
This idea runs contrary to slow-and-gradual notions of tectonic movement that were previously accepted.
Much of the work was led by Addis Ababa University’s Atalay Ayele, who gathered seismic data from the time the rift was formed. From that, University of Rochester earth scientist Cindy Ebinger assembled a more detailed model of how volcanoes trigger rapid tectonic activity.
“We know that seafloor ridges are created by a similar intrusion of magma into a rift, but we never knew that a huge length of the ridge could break open at once like this,” Ebinger said. “Seafloor ridges are made up of sections, each of which can be hundreds of miles long. Because of this study, we now know that each one of those segments can tear open in a just a few days.”
One obstacle to studying the topic is that geologists are unable to monitor the entire seafloor ridges simultaneously. Thus, earth scientist Ken Macdonald of University of California–Santa Barbara, who was not involved with the study, noted, “This work is a breakthrough in our understanding of continental rifting leading to the creation of new ocean basins.”
While the team continues to devote further study to the Ethiopian region (additional seismometers have been installed), we are reminded of how many times the slow-and-gradual, uniformitarian approach to geology has been upended by scientists’ observations of catastrophic events. The speed with which the Ethiopian rift appeared is a suggestion of just how rapidly tectonic events may occur on earth now. How much more rapidly could tectonic events, even large-scale ones, have occurred during and immediately after the catastrophic Flood year?
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