Thursday, April 26, 2018

Fake news - or is it?

Stanley - Thursday

On April 2 this year, Forbes reported that on March 19 a large crack had suddenly appeared on the earth’s surface in Kenya.  It was several kilometres long and 15 metres wide and 15 metres deep in places.  And it continues to grow.  You can watch a short video about it here.

It cut the busy Mai Mahiu-Narok road in two and split apart houses, including the home of a 72-year-old woman who was eating dinner with her family.  At around the same time, there were reports of earthquakes in the area.

The Forbes article postulated that Africa was in danger of splitting into two parts because the crack and quakes were compelling evidence that the eastern part of Africa was headed to the sea to become an island in the Indian Ocean.

This part of Africa could sail away.
This is what it may look like.
Don’t worry, though.  The estimated time of departure is millions of years away.

The eastern part of Africa has the famous Eastern Rift Valley extending 3000 kilometres from the Gulf of Aden to Zimbabwe. Formed over millions of years, it is the result of the slow separation of the Nubian and Ethiopian tectonic plates. These plates continue to move at the rate of a few millimetres a year, which will eventually result in the sea filling the valley, creating a huge island.

The Great Rift Valley in Tanzani
A number of news publications around the world jumped on the band wagon and reported similarly.  Soon millions of people knew about what was happening.  However, as far as I know, no one rushed to buy future seaside property in Nairobi.

Then, on April 6, The Guardian came up with a different explanation.  It acknowledged, of course, that the two tectonic plates were slowly moving apart, but reported that the new chasm was likely the result of underground erosion rather than tectonic shift.  

There were no scientific reports of even mild earthquakes in the region, and satellites failed to detect any surface swelling that would result from hot magma pushing upwards.  And a visual inspection of the cracks showed that the two walls didn’t fit into each other as one would expect if the ground was splitting.

What the satellites did show was evidence of erosion caused by flash floods both historic and present.  Some of these eroded the ground under the surface, which subsequently collapsed following heavy rains.  The result was the sudden appearance of these large cracks.

So which of the two explanations is correct?

I find this whole episode very interesting because I could buy either explanation.

First, many people immediately jumped to the conclusion that tectonic shift caused the cracks.  That's understandable because of the fact that the tectonic plates meet in the area and that the cracks appeared overnight.  But sloppy reporting meant that there was little or no due diligence by investigating competing theories.

Putting two and two together, in this case, looks as though gave the reporters an answer three.  

Second, it is disturbing that so many other publications, many of which were prestigious, passed on the tectonic-split explanation without checking or questioning it.  So, within days, people all over the world thought that the cracks were solid evidence that Africa was falling apart.

Extrapolating from this little story, it has become increasingly difficult for me to believe anything I read without extensive checking – and I generally don’t have the motivation nor the time to do that.  

Fake news is a scourge, whether it is intentional, as is so often the case in politics, or unintentional, as a result of sloppy reporting. In either case, it is fake and people are misled.

That’s sad.  


  1. I was suspicious when you mentioned it was April 2nd when the report came out. If it had been one day earlier, I would have been very suspicious!


    Gents, it’s too bad those credulous reports from all over the world are not regular readers of MIE. Were they, they would have been much better informed about this subject. (And myriad others)

    Last August I posted (above link) about the Rift Valley as a geological phenomenon. As Stan said, this separation is NOT a reason to worry. We have lots of others to be getting bent out of shape about. But not this one.

  3. Have we just invented the sink crack to go along with the sink hole?

  4. I think what you're saying, Stan, is that a lot of news isn't all it's cracked up to be.