East Africa’s rift valley is considered by many to be the cradle of humanity. In the Turkana region of northwest Kenya, researchers Christopher Lepre and Tanzhuo Liu of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory are cooperating with colleagues to study questions of human evolution, from the creation of the earliest stone tools to climate swings that have affected developing civilizations.
East Africa Rift
Marine seismic studies like ours are routinely done in the oceans using scientific equipment and research vessels outfitted specially for these purposes. Collecting comparable data in a great lake in Africa requires creative repurposing of available vessels and adaption of scientific equipment.
Ideally, seismic stations are sited in remote, quiet locations. But other considerations are important for a good station, particularly security. As a result, we placed most of our stations in towns near schools, hospitals or town halls, where people could keep an eye on them.
Driving around the Rungwe volcanic province in the southern East Africa Rift installing seismometers, we have the chance to observe first hand how geological processes in action create the most dramatic forms at Earth’s surface.
The last time we visited the southern part of the East Africa Rift, we were responding to an unusual series of earthquakes in December 2009 that shook northern Malawi. This time, we return to this part of the rift system as a part of a more comprehensive effort to understand the underpinnings of this continental rift.
A new study in the journal Nature provides fresh insight into deep-earth processes driving apart huge sections of the earth’s crust. This rifting mostly takes place on seabeds, but can be seen in a few places on land—nowhere more visibly than in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia.
In early May, Scott Nooner and I returned to Malawi to retrieve our seismic equipment and finally lay eyes on the data recorded over the last 4 months. Picking them up was vastly easier than putting them out. In contrast to the days studying out-dated maps and driving down dirt roads looking for sites, and… read more
While installing our seismic network in Malawi, we interacted with everyone from scientists to schoolteachers, and journalists to villagers. The opportunity to provide information and education to Malawians has been the most rewarding aspect of our effort. We trained local scientists and technicians on seismic equipment and data analysis, and educated the public on earthquakes… read more
A rapid technical response to the damaging earthquakes in Malawi produces both humanitarian and scientific benefits, and we hoped that both scientific and international assistance agencies would support our effort. Our seismic field effort serves two purposes: (1) to provide badly needed seismic equipment and technical training to the Malawi Geological Survey department (MGSD); and… read more
The ideal spot for a seismic station is dry, quiet and safe from vandals and thieves. Seismometers record slight ground motions, allowing them to hear distant (and not so distant) earthquakes. But cars or even kids playing near a seismic station can produce ground vibrations that overwhelm the subtle sounds of earthquakes. Seismic stations include… read more