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Stratigraphy of the Afar

Stratigraphy of the Afar Region

The oldest basement rocks of the Afar region are a series of volcanic, meta-
igneous and meta-sedimentary rocks found at the edge of the Afar Depression,
which form part of the Arabian-Nubian Shield. They were accreted when east
and west Gondwana collided during the Pan African orogeny in the late
Proterozoic, creating a series of north-south to ENE-WSW trending structures
and northwest-southeast trending shear zones (eg. Vail, 1985; Stern 94;
Abdelsalem & Stern 96). This formed a continuous stable platform until the
Permian when intra-continental rifting associated with the break up of
Gondwana (rifting between Africa and Madagascar) led to a shallow marine
transgression from the Indian Ocean and the deposition of Permian to
Palaeogene sedimentary strata on a continental passive margin (Hunegnaw et
al, 1998; Schull, 98; Bosellini et al, 01; Wolfenden et al 2005). This was
followed by a period of uplift and erosion to a peneplain with laterites
(Davidson et al, 1994; Drury et al, 1994).

1km of
of the
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the lithosphere (Ebinger et al, 1993; Ebinger & Sleep, 1998) or relate to a
separate plume (George et al, 1998). Between about 42 and 22Ma flood
basalts sequences covered much of the region. These are approximately coeval
with northeast-directed extension in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden
(Baker et al, 1996; Hofman et al, 1997; Ayalew et al, 2002; Uskins et al, 2002;
Ayalew & Yirgu, 2003; Coulie et al, 2003).

The flood sequences peaked between about 31-29Ma with the emplacement of
up to 2km of lavas and ignimbrites along the Nubian and Arabian margins of
the southern Red Sea (Ebinger et al, 1993; Hofmann et al, 1997; Wolfenden et
al 2005). The volcanics are made up repeating sequences of basaltic lava flows
overlain by rhyolites including ignimbrites, airfall tuffs and lavas. Silicic
volcanics are up to 50% of the preserved thickness and lie towards the top of
the sequence. Rhyolitic centres include massive glassy effusive volcanic rocks,
phenocryst rich crystalline intrusions which form irregular to dome shaped
flows (Ayalew et al, 2006). These Eocene to early Miocene volcanic rocks are
found mainly round the edge of the Afar Depression on the Ethiopian and
Somalian Plateau. Where they do occur within the Afar Depression (Trap
Basalts - 25-15Ma) they are heavily weathered and dissected by faults (Beyene
& Abdelsalam, 2005).

The Miocene igneous rocks of the Afar region are divided into the peralkaline
granites (26-22Ma), the Trap Basalts (25-15Ma), the Mabla rhyolite series (14-
10Ma) and the Dahla series (8-6Ma) (Varet, 1978). There are local variations in
the timing and distribution of these series (Wolfenden, 2005). The alkaline to
per-alkaline granites are found along the eastern and western edges of the Afar
Depression and in the north. They intrude the late Proterozoic basement, the
Mesozoic marine sequences and the older volcanic sequences (Varet, 1978).
The Trap Basalts are part of the flood basalt sequences. They overlie the
Mesozoic sediments and are in places intruded by the peralkaline granites. The
Mabla Series erupted from north-south trending vents and consists of rhyolites
and ignimbrites with some minor basalt flows (Varet, 1978; Vellutini, 1990).
The Dalha Series consists of basaltic fissural flows up to 800m thick with some
rare sedimentary rocks and ignimbrites inter-bedded between the flows (Varet,

The most extensive volcanic sequence covering about two thirds of the Afar
Depression is the Pliocene-Pleistocene Afar Stratoid Series. Individual basalt
flows are between 1 and 6m thick and the whole Series is up to 1500m thick. It
lies non-conformably on the Dalha Series indicating a period of erosion and
lowered magmatic activity between the two series (Varet, 1978).

In the east and west of the Afar Depression are the Tranverse volcanics and
Marginal centres. These are east/northeast trending volcanic centres around 4
million years old and are intercalculated with the top of the Afar Stratoid
Series. The Transverse volcanics consist of basaltic lava flows with inclusions of 8/22/2008
Afar Stratigraphy Geological Page 3 of 3

peridotite nodules suggesting a mantle source. The Marginal centres are

summit calderas with trachytic and rhyolitic sequences (Barberi & Varet, 1975;
Barberi & Varet, 1977; Varet 1978).

The Quaternary Axial Volcanic Ranges

are characterised by fissure eruptions
and shield volcanoes with basaltic flows
and alkaline and per-alkaline silicic
rocks and occur along northwest-
southeast trending narrow rift zones.
The Axial Volcanic Ranges are underlain
by thin ocean-type crust which youngs
from the marginal to the central zones.
These similarities with mid-oceanic
ridges have led to the idea that the
Axial Volcanic Ranges represent oceanic spreading centres (Varet, 1978; Tefera
et al, 1996).

Photograph is of the rift zone to the south of Dabbahu volcano in the Axial
Volcanic Ranges. The cracks are in older basalts, softer sedimentary rocks and
volcanic ash (photo: Julie Rowland, University of Auckland).

The Quaternary sedimentary rocks of the Afar Depression are mainly

fluvial/lacustrine with thicknesses up to 200m in places (Varet, 1978).

Back to Geology of Afar Region


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