The East African Orogen: Neoproterozoic tectonics on display

Over a period of about 300 Ma the fragmentation of a supercontinent, Rodinia, drove a round of sea-floor spreading and continental drift that culminated in reassembly of the older continental pieces and entirely new crust in a new supercontinent, Gondwana. The largest source of evidence for this remarkable tectonic turnaround is a belt stretching N-S for over 3000 km from southern Israel through East Africa to Mozambique. At its widest the belt exposes Neoproterozoic  rocks and structures for some 1700 km E-W from west of the Nile in northern Sudan almost to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.  This Arabian-Nubian Shield tapers southwards to thin out completely in northern Tanzania between far older cratons and in a state of high-grade metamorphism.

This East African Orogen has long been considered the best exposed bowels of former mountain building that there are: results of continent-continent collision and the bulldozing together of many oceanic arcs and remnants of oceanic lithosphere that once separated the cratons. This was much more complex than a case of head-on tectonics, the northward-swelling Arabian-Nubian Shield showing all the signs of being like a gigantic ‘pip’ squeezed out northwards from two cratonic jaws during the last stages of what is often called the Pan African Orogeny. Interestingly, the line of the orogen is roughly followed by East Africa’s other giant feature, the Rift Valley; actually two of them following Pan African terranes. A continental scale anisotropy has been reactivated and subject to extensional tectonics, and maybe in future a new round of sea-floor spreading as has begun in the Red Sea, some half a billion years after it formed.

Simplified geological map of the East African Orogen courtesy of the authors of Fritz et al 2013
Simplified geological map of the East African Orogen courtesy of the authors of Fritz et al 2013

Now there is an opportunity for anyone to download and read a digest of East African orogenic processes compiled by researchers from several countries along the belt and their colleagues from North America, Europe and Australia who have been privileged to work in this vast area (Fritz, H and 13 others 2013. Orogen styles in the East African orogen: A review of the Neoproterozoic to Cambrian tectonic evolution. Journal of African Earth Sciences, v. 86, p. 65-106 Click on the link, scroll to the Open Access article to download the 12 Mb PDF version). The authors present superb simplified geological maps of each major part of the orogen, a vast array of references and well-written accounts of its sector-by-sector tectonic and metamorphic evolution, variations in style and broad tectonic setting.

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