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Scientists witness the birth of a new ocean

Photo: Fissures have opened in the Earth’s surface in Afar as the Arabian and Nubian tectonic plates pull apart. Scientists say the process is the same as that which created the Atlantic. Photograph: Xan Rice

Earth News: Ethiopia, Africa
Xan Rice in Afar, Ethiopia
November 2, 2006

In Ethiopia's arid Afar region eruptions and earthquakes have created an open-air laboratory

The nomads were terrified. For a week the ground had shuddered violently. Cracks opened up in the soil swallowing goats and camels. Sulphur-laced smoke rose out of the dark slits. After retreating to the hills, the nomads saw chunks of obsidian rock burst through the Earth's crust "like huge black birds" and fly 30 metres into the air.
A mushroom cloud of ash dimmed the sun for three days. At night the new crater breathed flashes of fire.
"They had experienced earthquakes before but never anything like this," said Atalay Ayele, a seismologist at Addis Ababa University, who interviewed the Afar tribespeople soon after the volcanic eruption 13 months ago in this remote corner of north-eastern Ethiopia. "They said that Allah must have been angry with them."
But Dr Ayele, 37, and his colleagues wanted a scientific explanation. They knew the area was geologically unstable, but the number of earthquakes - 162 measuring more than four on the Richter scale in just two weeks - made them suspect that something extraordinary had happened deep underground.

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