Geologists have long been baffled by the East African Rift (EAR) system, one of the planet’s greatest continental rifts.

A group of researchers from Virginia Tech have identified a likely explanation for the strange deformations occurring under the East African Rift System.

The “African Superplume” was identified as the source of this peculiar deformation by the examination of GPS satellite data and computer modelling of this rift.

The strange deformation

Tectonic plate movement apart from one another is the main cause of continental rifts. The lithosphere, or the crust of the Earth, extends and separates. As a result, the Earth’s crust, which ordinarily develops perpendicular to plate movement, will distort.

According to an official statement made by Sarah Stamps, an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences, “If you hit Silly Putty with a hammer, it can actually crack and break.” “However, the Silly Putty extends if you carefully peel it apart. Thus, the behaviour of Earth’s lithosphere varies depending on the time scale.

The EAR, however, has an odd malformation. According to the findings, EAR deforms in parallel and perpendicular to plate movement.

The East African Rift System was once thought to only have rift-perpendicular deformations. However, the geologists found deformation that went the opposite direction, parallel to the rifts, after studying the rift system with GPS sensors for over ten years.

The African Superplume, a massive upwelling of the mantle that rises from deep within the Earth beneath southwest Africa and travels northeast across the continent, becoming more shallow as it extends northward, is said to be the cause of the rift system’s unusual, rift-parallel deformation.

3D thermomechanical modeling helped crack this mystery

The underlying dynamics of the East African Rift System were examined by the researchers using 3D thermomechanical modelling. Finding the origin of rift-parallel deformations was made easier with the use of 3D thermomechanical modelling.

Additionally, information gathered from GPS stations on more than 30 satellites orbiting Earth at a distance of around 25,000 kilometres was used to analyse the unprecedented rift-parallel deformation.

The discovery, according to the authors, is important because it advances our knowledge of the complex processes that alter the Earth’s surface through continental rifting.

The Journal of Geophysical Research has published the results.

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