Why is Africa rifting?
Continental rifting has a fundamental role in the tectonic behaviour of the Earth, shaping the surface we live on. Although there is not yet a consensus about the dominant mechanism for rifting, there is a general agreement that the stresses required to rift the continental lithosphere are not readily available. Here we use a global finite element model of the lithosphere to calculate the stresses acting on Africa. We consider the stresses induced by mantle flow, crustal structure and topography in two types of models: one in which flow is exclusively driven by the subducting slabs and one in which it is derived from a shear wave tomographic model. The latter predicts much larger stresses and a more realistic dynamic topography. It is therefore clear that the mantle structure beneath Africa plays a key part in providing the radial and horizontal tractions, dynamic topography and gravitational potential energy necessary for rifting. Nevertheless, the total available stress (c. 100 MPa) is much less than that needed to break thick, cold continental lithosphere. Instead, we appeal to a model of magma-assisted rifting along pre-existing weaknesses, where the strain is localized in a narrow axial region and the strength of the plate is reduced significantly. Mounting geological and geophysical observations support such a model.
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A major rifting episode began in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia in September 2005. Over a ten-day period, c. 2.5 km3 of magma were intruded along a 60 km-long dyke separating the Arabian and Nubian plates. Over the next five years, a further 13 dyke intrusions caused continued extension, eruptions and seismicity. This activity led to a renewed international focus on the role of magmatism in rifting, with major international collaborative projects working in Afar and Ethiopia to study the ongoing activity and to place it in a broader context. This book brings together articles that explore the role of magmatism in rifting, from the initiation of continental break-up through to full seafloor spreading. We also explore the hazards related to rifting and the associated volcanism. This work has implications for our understanding of how continents break-up and the associated distribution of resources in rift basins and continental margins.