Magnetotelluric studies of the crust and upper mantle in a zone of active continental breakup, Afar, Ethiopia
Johnson, Nicholas Edward
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The Afar region of Ethiopia is slowly being torn apart by the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Main Ethiopian rifts which all meet at this remote, barren corner of Africa. Prior to rifting, volcanism probably started here some 30 million years ago, marked by the arrival of the Afar mantle plume and subsequent eruption of kilometres thick flood basalts. To the north and east the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden rifts have already progressed to become sea-floor spreading centres where new oceanic crust is produced. Active spreading on the Red Sea rift takes a landward step west into Eritrean Afar at approximately 15oN, after which divergence between the Nubian and Arabian tectonic plates is localised into 60 km long, 20 km wide magmatic segments that undergo periodic rifting cycles. This part of Afar is a unique natural laboratory where the process of transition from continental rifting to sea floor spreading can be studied. In September 2005 a dramatic rifting episode began on one such segment of the Red Sea rift in Afar (the Dabbahu magmatic segment), whereby a 60 km long dyke containing an estimated 2.5 km3 magma was intruded in just two weeks, allowing opening of up to 8 m. Since then a further 13 smaller dykes have been intruded, some with fissural eruptions of basaltic lava. Subsidence observed via geodetic observations can only account for a small fraction of the magma supply required to in ate the dykes, suggesting a deep crustal or upper mantle source must exist. The magnetotelluric (MT) method is a passive geophysical technique, used to probe the Earth to reveal subsurface conductivity. The presence of fluids can dramatically increase conductivity by orders of magnitude making the MT method ideally suited to detecting them. MT data collected from 22 sites on profiles near to and crossing the active rift are analysed and interpreted in conjunction with seismic and petrological constraints. They reveal for the first time, the existence of both a mid to lower-crustal magma chamber directly below the rift, and an o -axis zone of partial melt well within the mantle. The volume of melt contained within the crust and upper mantle below the Dabbahu segment is estimated to be at least 350 km3; enough to supply the rift at current spreading rates for almost 30 thousand years, assuming that both melt containing regions supply the rift. Vast amounts of highly conductive material, suggesting the existence of pure melt in places, are also required in the shallow crust close to Dabbahu volcano which lies at the northern end of the segment. Further data collected on the currently inactive Hararo segment which is the next one to the south of Dabbahu, show a smaller zone of partial melt that appears to be pooling at the Moho, inferred seismically to be at about 22 km, but little or no melt is required within the mid-crust. The minimum amount of melt estimated to be contained here is just 21 km3; an order of magnitude less than on the Dabbahu segment, but similar to estimates for melt within the crust found below the rift axis in the continental Main Ethiopian rift. This, along with other morphological evidence, suggests that this rift segment is less mature than the Dabbahu segment to the north, rather than it simply being at a different stage of a rifting cycle. A wide spread layer of highly conductive sediments up to 2 km thick has been imaged at most locations. This was unexpected on the Dabbahu segment where the surface of the Earth is dominated by heavily faulted basalts erupted from fissures, which are seen as a resistive uppermost layer several hundred metres thick. The high conductivity of the sediments is attributed to high heat flow and the presence of brines.