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East African Rift System

The most distinctive and dramatic geological feature in Africa is undoubtedly the East African rift system. The rift opened up in the Tertiary period, approximately 65 million years ago, shortly after the dinosaurs became extinct. The same tectonic forces that formed the rift valley and which threaten to eventually split East Africa from the rest of the continent have caused the northeast drifting of the Arabian plate, the opening of the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and the volcanic uplifting of Africa's highest peaks including its highest, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Mount Kibo, the higher of Kilimanjaro's two peaks, soars 19,320 ft (5,796 m) and is permanently snowcapped despite its location near the equator.

Both Kilimanjaro and Africa's second highest peak, Mount Kenya (17,058 ft; 5,117 m) sitting astride the equator, are actually composite volcanos, part of the vast volcanic field associated with the East African rift valley. The rift valley is also punctuated by a string of lakes, the deepest being Lake Tanganyika with a maximum depth of 4,708 ft (1,412 m). Only Lake Baikal in Eastern Russia is deeper at 5,712 ft (1,714 m).

Seismically the rift valley is very much alive. Lava flows and volcanic eruptions occur about once a decade in the Virunga Mountains north of Lake Kivu along the western stretch of the rift valley. One volcano in the Virunga area in eastern Zaire which borders Rwanda and Uganda actually dammed a portion of the valley formerly drained by a tributary of the Nile River, forming Lake Kivu as a result.

On its northern reach, the 4,000-mi (6,400-km) long rift valley separates Africa from Asia. The rift's eastern arm can be traced from the Gulf of Aqaba separating Arabia from the Sinai Peninsula, down along the Red Sea which divides Africa from Arabia. The East African rift's grabens (basins of crust bounded by fault lines) stretch through the extensive highlands of central Ethiopia which range up to 15,000 ft (4,500 m) and then along the Awash River. Proceeding south, the rift valley is dotted by a series of small lakes from Lake Azai to Lake Abaya and then into Kenya by way of Lake Turkana.

Slicing through Kenya, the rift's grabens are studded by another series of small lakes from Lake Baringo to Lake Magadi. The valley's trough or basin is disguised by layers of volcanic ash and other sediments as it threads through Tanzania via Lake Natron. However, the rift can be clearly discerned again in the elongated shape of Lake Malawi and the Shire River Valley, where it finally terminates along the lower Zambezi River and the Indian Ocean near Beira in Mozambique.

The rift valley also has a western arm which begins north of Lake Albert (Lake Mobutu) along the Zaire-Uganda border and continues to Lake Edward. It then curves south along Zaire's eastern borders forming that country's boundaries with Burundi as it passes through Lake Kivu and Tanzania by way of Lake Tanganyika. Lake Tanganyika is not only the second deepest lake in the world but also at 420 mi (672 km) the second longest, second in length and depth only to Lake Baikal in Eastern Russia.

The rift's western arm then extends toward Lake Nysasa (Lake Malawi). Shallow but vast Lake Victoria sits in a trough between the rift's two arms. Although the surface altitude of the rift valley lakes like Nyasa and Tanganyika are hundreds of feet above sea level, their floors are hundreds of feet below due to their great depths. In that sense they resemble the deep fjords found in Norway.

The eastern arm of the rift valley is much more active than the western branch, volcanically and seismically. There are more volcanic eruptions in the crust of the eastern arm with intrusions of magma (subterranean molten rock) in the middle and lower crustal depths. Geologists consider the geological forces driving the eastern arm to be those associated with the origin of the entire rift valley and deem the eastern arm to be the older of the two.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adrenoceptor (adrenoreceptor; adrenergic receptor) to AmbientAfrica - Origin Of Africa, Continental Drift, General Features, East African Rift System, Human Evolution