The life cycle of continental rifting as a focus for U.S.-African scientific collaboration



The East African Rift System (EARS) provides the unique opportunity found nowhere else on Earth, to investigate extensional processes from incipient rifting in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, to continental breakup and creation of proto-oceanic basins 3000 km to the north in the Afar Depression in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti.The study of continental rifts is of great interest because they represent the initial stages of continental breakup and passive margin development, they are sites for large-scale sediment accumulation, and their geomorphology may have controlled human evolution in the past and localizes geologic hazards in the present.

But there is little research that provides insights into the linkage between broad geodynamic processes and the life cycle of continental rifts: We do not know why some rifts evolve into mid-ocean ridges whereas others abort their evolution to become aulacogens. Numerous studies of the EARS and other continental rifts have significantly increased our understanding of rifting processes, but we particularly lack studies of the embryonic stages of rift creation and the last stages of extension when continental breakup occurs.