Visions of a land crashing, splitting and exploding–The Great Rift Valley

Today, I’m working in my office, gazing westward to the massive Central Vietnam mountains outside my office window. Some day, I’ll write about Vietnam. But while I’m gazing at jungly mountains, I’m working on an African novel, second in a series. I’m thinking about having the climatic chase enfold along the Great Rift Valley. It’s a place of personal memories: my honeymoon on the shores of Lake Ziway, four-wheeling up a muddy steep mountain near Arba Minch to visit the Nechisar Preserve, boating on Lake Awasa, and many more.

Running atop the Great Rift Valley

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a faraway place, I ran on an improvised track around a corn field above the Gret Rift Valley. Actually, I jogged, sometimes walked. Taye, my grade 7 student and an aspiring marathon runner, often joined me. He ran. Not only did he run, he bounced over the rough terrain as if he were a graceful gazel fleeing a hungry lion. It was a beautiful sight. (Taye would join the successful list of Ethiopian marathoners, competing in around the world and winning several races.)

But, because I was rather slow, my eyes constantly probed into the famous Great Rift Valley. I was living a childhood fantasy. I’d first heard of the Rift Valley by reading Hemingway as a youngster, reading about Mt. Killamanjaro,  giraffes, lions, elephants, and all the stunning wildlife of the savannah. Books on safaris and early African explorations filled my bag.

On my Ethiopian runs, I couldn’t see the Kenyan Rift, nor Killamanjaro. But I could see a long, curving rift landscape pockmarked with grasslands, lakes and volcanic cones.

What is a Rift Valley?

A rift valley is a lowland region that forms where Earth’s tectonic plates move apart, or rift, according to National Geographic. Rift valleys are both on land and at the bottom of the ocean, where they’re created by the process of seafloor spreading. Rift valleys differ from river valleys and glacial valleys in that tectonic activity and not the process of erosion creates them.

As a child, and then as a student, I avoided science. I told myself science was boring, and not important for what I planned to do. Then, in university, in a huge auditorium class, I learned about plate tectonics. My ears perked up. I heard how the earth’s crust comprised huge, rocky slabs that were constantly in motion, shifting against each other, sometimes one plate submerging under another, or crashing into or tearing away from each other.

Crazy stuff. Interesting.

Most of the time, we don’t notice these moving tectonic plates. But, when we do, it’s often dramatic: earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and, over long periods of time that we may never experience, it includes the formations of new islands and/or oceans.

By my late teens, I was into outdoor explorations, hiking, climbing (amateur stuff), and nature. I never considered serious scientific study, but an interest in earth and natural sciences became personal, and I’ve stayed fascinated.

The Great Rift Valley

The most famous rift valley is the Great Rift Valley. It’s not just an African system: it’s a series of linked rifts that stretch from Jordan, near the Golan Heights of Israel down to the Dead Sea, Gulf of Aqaba, down into the Red Sea into East Africa and on toward Mozambique in southern Africa.

Our focus is the East African Rift System (EARS) cutting in from the sea, through the Afar Depression, into a long strand of rift valley lakes in Ethiopia and on into Kenya. reports that the exact mechanism of rift formation in EARS is an ongoing debate. The most popular model says that there is an elevated heat flow from the mantle that is causing a pair of thermal “bulges” in central Kenya and the Afar region of north-central Ethiopia. These bulges are noticeable as elevated highlands on a topographical map. As they form, they stretch and fracture (rift) the brittle earth’s crust into a series of faults. So, picture a plume of fiery molten earth pushing upwards, heating the crust like a big apple pie! The overlying crust then expands and fractures. 

In between these bulges are the valleys, sometimes low and like a desert with all kinds of strange rocky formations, sometimes lush and filled with lakes and wildlife. This latter area was closer to Project Mercy, where I lived, and in the valley I know.

The Afar Triple Junction

In the East African Rift, the continent of Africa is splitting in two. The Nubian plate is underneath most of Africa, and the smaller Somali plate carries the Horn of Africa (eastern Ethiopia, Somali, Somaliland, Djibouti). At a place named the Afar Triple Junction, The Arabian plate, Nubian plate, and the Somali plate, are all tearing away from each other.

Hum… that sounds like a good place to end a chase scene in a suspense novel, do you agree?

Two arms of the Afar Triple Junction are continuing to widen and National Geographic hypothesizes the narrow valley between these arms may sink low enough so that the Arabian Sea will flood it, creating a large new “island” out of the Horn of Africa.

Already, the Danakil Depression, which lies at the triple junction of these three plates, is 410 feet below sea level. Throughout the area are volcanoes, including an active Erta Ale. A place of change and coming change.

It would be best if my heroes fled from that place before anything drastic happens!

More Information

Most of my extremely summarized information about Rift Valleys came from the National Geographic piece called Rift Valley 

National Geographic also has a brilliant series for those who want to know more about plate tectonics and related subjects. Check it out here. While it’s intended for “students,” it’s perfect for non-science students of all ages! has an excellent presentation about The East Africa Rift System, with maps that are very helpful.

The Geological Society has a sound piece about the Triple Junction: The Red Sea/East Africa that I found very helpful.

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Scott Douglas Martell is a writer, teacher and coach. His most recent novel is The Hyena Man, an African romantic suspense. His blogs often focus on Ethiopia and Vietnam, world traveling, and counseling for a more joyful life, with topics such as brain health and spiritual awareness.

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