Team to study EA Rift System's slow break-up

Friday January 21 2022
A fault line cuts across a farm in Nakuru County, in Kenya's Rift Valley, in 2018. 

A fault line cuts across a farm in Nakuru County, in Kenya's Rift Valley, in 2018.


A geoscience team is examining the breaking up of eastern Africa, which is slowly separating to form several new land masses and oceans along the diverging East African Rift System.

“From Madagascar off the coast of Africa where small tectonic blocks are forecast to break apart into smaller islands, to the northern parts of East Africa, in Ethiopia and the Afar region where the first stages of new ocean basin formation are underway,” said lead investigator and associate professor in the Department of Geosciences-Virginia Tech College of Science, Dr Sarah Stamps on January 7.

“You can think of the breakup of eastern Africa as the continuation of the breakup of Pangaea,” said Stamps, who is also leader of the Geodesy and Tectonophysics Laboratory.

“Eastern Africa is actively breaking up, and if it continues, we will see new oceans forming... The spreading has already created new oceanic crust. The land is subsiding, and the first stages of new ocean basin formation is underway.”

Magma intrusions

According to her the culprit is the region’s rich and deep intrusions of magma.


“Yet, Africa is also seeing continental rifts, the separations, in areas where there is no evidence of magma intrusions. These types of continent rifts are known as magma-poor or “dry” rifts. In short, if this were a mystery the culprit’s identity is unknown,” she added in a press statement revealing the grant announcement for the work.

The study, dubbed the DRIAR project (Dry Rifting In the Albertine-Rhino Graben, Uganda) will start in Uganda. Dr Stamps will conduct her research in Uganda, in collaboration with the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development and Makerere University. Others will be drawn from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, University of Kansas, Northwestern University, University of California, Davis, and Midwestern State University in Texas.

They will focus on the Northern Western Branch of the EA Rift System located in Uganda, where magma-poor rifting is taking place. A wide range of geophysical, geological, and geochemical observations will be collected, and numerical modeling of the region will be performed to understand how the magma-poor rifts form and evolve.

Farther south in the central East African Rift System, the breakup of the continent is less intense.

The team seeks to unravel the physics leading to the new breakage of the earth’s crust in the region, in addition to better understanding continental rifting. Additionally Stamps hopes to help improve data on estimates of carbon dioxide transfer into the atmosphere that occurs during continental rifting, advancing rifting models used for exploring natural resources, and creating new insights into seismic hazards associated with active faulting. The project will involve analysis of Global Navigation Satellite System data collected in Uganda.