The regular earth tremors felt by people living around the Red Sea are the “birthing pains of Earth’s newest ocean – the ocean that the Red Sea will eventually grow up to become”, Australian tectonics specialist at Australia’s Monash University Associate Professor Peter Betts, says.
The sea is young in geological terms – just 24 million years old – and is the one place on the planet where a new ocean plate is still forming, as the African and the Arabian continental plates move away from one another until they eventually split.
The phenomenon, being studied by Betts, Monash colleague Dr Laurent Ailleres and Dr Khalid Almalki of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, is adding to our understanding of how the Earth works, as Betts explains in the Monash University magazine:
“We know how the planet reconfigures itself over time and what happens when ocean and continental plates start colliding. That’s when you get earthquakes and volcanoes – on the west coast of the US, the Andes in South America, around Japan and the Pacific Rim. But we don’t understand how new ocean plates, and a new ocean, begin.”
Dr Almalki has identified several different volcanic cells, each with its own central ridge from which magma emerges to form new ocean crust.
Betts says one cell in the southern Red Sea region has been active for several million years. “However, the increase in seismic activity in the region indicates that a second, more central cell is now awakening,” he says. “In the past 10 years, dyking [magma emplacement] indicates where the new cell is activating.”
This dyking is a build-up of magma that precedes the splitting of the Earth’s mantle to form a new ocean ridge from which the magma will flow to form ocean crust. Dr Almalki says this could happen any time: next week or in thousands of years. His data analysis and modelling have also identified another one or possibly two “embryo” cells further north of the one awakening.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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