for National Geographic News
Moses may have received some geological assistance when he parted the Red Sea to let the Israelites through, according to the Bible.
In a new study, scientists have determined that a recent tear in Earth's continental crust near the sea is the largest single rip seen since satellite monitoring began. (Related story: Noah's Ark Discovered in Iran? [July 5, 2006].)
For the past 30 million years the Arabian tectonic plate has been moving away from the African (Nubian) plate at the Red Sea.
But the rift, in which Earth's crust is being stretched and thinned, is not happening smoothly.
Most of the time the plates are stuck together. But in September of last year they split apart along a 37-mile (60-kilometer) section in Afar, Ethiopia (Ethiopia map), near the southern end of the Red Sea.
The scientist's observations may help to explain how Earth's plates split apart and how new crust forms.
The study suggests that the splitting is due to the injection of underground magma (molten rock) into the rift rather than earthquakes happening on tectonic faults.
"It is clear that the rise of molten rock through the plate is enabling the breakup of Africa and Arabia," said Tim Wright, an earth and environmental scientist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.
Wright is the lead author of the study, which is reported in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature.
The scientists used data from the European Space Agency's Envisat radar satellite to analyze how the ground moved during the rifting episode.
A similar event occurred in Iceland from 1975 to 1984, but it took nine years and 20 individual "rips" to achieve what happened in Ethiopia in just a few weeks.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES