Volcanic activity may split the African continent in two owing to a recent geological crack in north-eastern Ethiopia, researchers said on Tuesday.
The 60km split in the desolate Afar region, which was the result of two volcanic eruptions in September 2005, has enabled scientists to further examine the earth's tectonic movements, said a report published in the Geophysical Research Letters.
"The significance of the finding is that a huge magnetic deformation can happen within a few days like in oceans," Atalay Arefe, an Ethiopia-based university professor who was part of the study, told reporters in an interview.
Researchers say faults and fissures, which normally occur deep down on the ocean floor, are the main processes by which continents gradually break off from each other.
They cite Africa, which underwent a similar phase when it split from America millions of years ago.
"Normally, such phenomena happens beneath the ocean, which is inaccessible, expensive and very difficult to make experiments. But in Afar, it's quite a natural laboratory for us to carry those out," Atalay explained.
Atalay, who was part of an international group of scientists who have been undertaking studies since the eruptions, said the event indicated what was likely to happen in the mainland.
"The ocean's formation is happening slowly, likely to take a few million years. It will stretch from the Afar depression (straddling Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti) down to Mozambique," he said.
The Afar region, known for its salt mines and active volcanoes, is one of the lowest and hottest places on the planet.