News outlets and social media have been abuzz recently about a large crack that opened up in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Many of the articles have tried to get to the bottom of what caused this feature, with several “credible” MSM reports falsely concluding that it was evidence for the African continent actively splitting into two.

However, these same articles cited limited or no expert comment, much of which was taken out of context and was based on minimal hard evidence or outright conjecture. Other articles on sites like Forbes and HuffPo simply regurgitated information provided by their competitors, propagating unsubstantiated rumours and losing sight of original sources. It seems nobody bothered to ask an expert, and, lo and behold, it turns out journalists aren’t the most qualified people to be theorizing on geology and seismology. Color me not surprised.

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Given the initial appearance of the crack, the reports of earthquakes apparently occurring at the same time, and its location along a newly-forming tectonic plate boundary, it is perhaps natural to quickly think that this is related to the break-up, or “rifting”, of Africa. Since the sudden appearance of the crack may understandably affect the lives of those locals living and working in the vicinity, it is important that we look at all the available evidence to find out what is causing it, and to prevent undue panic…or celebration.

Giant crack Kenya
Residents gaze into a large chasm that recently opened up in Kenya (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

After examining photographs, satellite imagery and videos of the crevice, it is quite clear that it does not have a tectonic origin. The two sides of the crack do not have the same outline, and much like trying to force the wrong pieces of a puzzle together, they do not fit. Further disproving the tectonic theory, the crack is not fully continuous, with soil “bridges” in between. There are no clear escarpments, and the land is flat on either side of the crack. This evidence indicates that the crack was formed by rapid erosion – not by pulling apart (extension) along active geological faults.

Massive crack in Africa

Second, reports of seismic activity in the region during the time the crack appeared are entirely unsubstantiated. There have been no official reports of earthquakes from authorities within Kenya, and we can say with certainty that no moderate-to-large sized earthquakes have occurred recently. With Kenya’s capital, Nairobi less than 50km away, even small earthquakes would have registered on the government’s seismic readings, and the citizens of neighboring villages would have felt the tremors and aftershock. Even so, since the entire region is undergoing gradual extension, it is normal for small earthquakes to occasionally occur, so local people feeling tremors does not suggest any causal abnormality.

Yes, East Africa is pulling away from the rest of the continent. But Kenya is in no danger of falling into the sea anytime soon. In related news, an anonymous local claims he found former president Barack Obama’s birth certificate in the bottom of the newly-formed chasm.

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