Study Finds Giant 'Superplume' Slowly Splitting Africa In Two

08/06/2014 02:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2014

In 10 million years, we might have two Half-ricas, according to a new study by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the University of California at San Diego. But this isn't the doing of some Nikola Tesla-esque mad scientist and a world splitting super weapon; in fact it's due to a superplume, a massive upwelling of molten rock slowly splitting the African tectonic plate in two.

Plumes of magma have long been thought to move the continents around, at least since 1912 when Alfred Wegener said that Africa and South America looked like they kind of fit together. But in East Africa, scientists have only recently begun to precisely figure out why two massive chunks of land are separating by a few millimeters every year.

David Hilton and his team of researchers from Scripps visited volcanoes on both sides of the Great Rift Valley and collected gas samples to investigate. Scientists previously thought that two separate, smaller plumes were responsible for the gradual widening of the valley in East Africa, but Hilton and his team found that the chemistry and physics told another story.

Hilton's team examined the rocks found on the two plateaus bordering the valley, the Ethiopia Dome and the Kenya Dome. To test their theory that there is in fact only one, large plume splitting the African landscape, the researchers looked inside the rocks for helium-3 and neon-22, specific forms of helium and neon gas that could shine light onto how the plateaus were formed.

The Scripps researchers discovered that the ratios of neon-22 gas to helium-3 gas were identical in both sets of rock samples, and confirmed the hypothesis that the two plateaus -- and therefore, the rift -- are caused by one massive plume of magma in the Earth's mantle.

Luckily, Africans won't have to worry about their land being torn apart, at least not immediately. While ebola wreaks havoc across West Africa, the residents of East Africa have about 50 million years to plan for the new ocean that the superplume will create.

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