Genesis of the East African Rift System

Olago D, WoldeGabriel G, Dindi E, Owor M. "Genesis of the East African Rift System.". In: Soda Lakes of East Africa. Springer, Cham; 2016.


The East African Rift System (EARS) started in Late Oligocene to Early Miocene time and gradually propagated southwards from the Afar Depression, beginning in the Middle Miocene. The hot, low-density mantle material of the Afar Plume heated the overlying lithosphere, causing thinning, regional doming, and the earliest basaltic volcanism in southern Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, the Afar Depression, the Main Ethiopian Rift, and the broadly rifted zone of southwestern Ethiopia represent the northern segment of the EARS.

In the Kenyan sector of the EARS, uplift and doming also gave rise to the Kenya Dome. The radial flow patterns of the initial phonolites provide evidence for doming. Another important observation is that the rift geometry was greatly influenced by pre-existing structures of the underlying Mozambique Mobile Belt. Rifting proceeded through alternating episodes of volcanism and tectonics. Crossing into Tanzania, the influence of the neighbouring Tanzania Craton becomes evident. Here, the rift is expressed only in the northern part, splaying out in diverging half-graben valleys that are outside the Kenya Dome.

Large boundary faults and opposing flexural margins, producing mobile asymmetrical full and half-graben basins that are individually linked along the rift axis, mark the Western Rift Valley. These basins are frequently occupied by elongate and narrow lakes (largely freshwater) separated by accommodation zones and containing significant hydrocarbon resources especially in the Albertine Graben. Small to large lakes existed in the EARS during the Plio–Pleistocene. Lakes in the Western Rift are large and deep, whereas those in the Kenya, Main Ethiopian, and Afar Rifts are generally small and shallow. Geological records indicate that the lakes sensitively responded to orbital forcing as well as to local, regional, and global climatic, environmental, and tectonic changes, resulting in fluctuating lake sizes and even desiccation.

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