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New Study in Geology Uses Satellite Imagery to Identify Active Magma Systems in East Africa’s Rift Valley

A team from the University of Miami, University of El Paso and University of Rochester have employed Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR) images compiled over a decade to study volcanic activity in the African Rift. The study, published in the November issue of Geology, studies the section of the rift in Kenya.

“The Kenyan Rift volcanoes are part of a larger Great Rift Valley complex that extends all the way from Mozambique to Djibouti; their presence in East Africa attests to the presence of magma reservoirs within the Earth’s crust,” said Lead Author Dr. Juliet Biggs, Rosenstiel Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Miami. “Our study detected signs of activity in only four of the 11 volcanoes in the area -- Suswa, Menengai, Longonot and Paka -- all within the borders of Kenya.”

Small surface displacements, which are not visible to the naked eye, were captured using InSAR, a sophisticated satellite-based radar technique. Using images from European Space Agency satellites ERS and Envisat, the team was able to detect the smallest ((

“The fact that these areas are so close to a major metropolitan area pose a challenge in terms of a large volcanic or seismic event” says co-author Cindy Ebinger. Suswa, Menengai and Longonot are all located in densely populated areas within 100 km of Nairoibi.

The study also provides insight as to the geothermal potential of the region. Kenya was the first African country to build geothermal energy plants to generate this renewable, environmentally friendly alternative to coal and oil. The impact of harnessing such a resource could provide an important economic engine for the region.

Geothermal energy is generated by drilling deep holes into the Earth’s crust, pumping cold water through one end so by the time it resurfaces it is steam, which is then used to fuel a turbine, which in turn drives a generator, and creates power.

“This study demonstrates the potential for using InSAR to measure active magmatic and tectonic phenomena in Africa, allowing us to watch the processes by which continents break apart” says lead author Juliet Biggs, who has just begun a 2-year project at the University of Oxford, funded by the European Space Agency, to map the pattern of volcanic activity, dike intrusion and active faulting along the whole of the East African Rift.

About the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School
Founded in the 1940’s, the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science has grown into one of the world’s premier marine and atmospheric research institutions. Offering dynamic interdisciplinary academics, the Rosenstiel School is dedicated to helping communities to better understand the planet, participating in the establishment of environmental policies, and aiding in the improvement of society and quality of life.
Media Contacts:
Barbra Gonzalez
UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
Marie Guma-Diaz
UM Media Relations Office

Barbra Gonzalez | RSMAS Miami
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