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A progressively wetter climate in southern East Africa over the past 1.3 million years

Nature volume 537, pages 220224 (08 September 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

African climate is generally considered to have evolved towards progressively drier conditions over the past few million years, with increased variability as glacial–interglacial change intensified worldwide1,2,3. Palaeoclimate records derived mainly from northern Africa exhibit a 100,000-year (eccentricity) cycle overprinted on a pronounced 20,000-year (precession) beat, driven by orbital forcing of summer insolation, global ice volume and long-lived atmospheric greenhouse gases4. Here we present a 1.3-million-year-long climate history from the Lake Malawi basin (10°–14° S in eastern Africa), which displays strong 100,000-year (eccentricity) cycles of temperature and rainfall following the Mid-Pleistocene Transition around 900,000 years ago. Interglacial periods were relatively warm and moist, while ice ages were cool and dry. The Malawi record shows limited evidence for precessional variability, which we attribute to the opposing effects of austral summer insolation and the temporal/spatial pattern of sea surface temperature in the Indian Ocean. The temperature history of the Malawi basin, at least for the past 500,000 years, strongly resembles past changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide and terrigenous dust flux in the tropical Pacific Ocean, but not in global ice volume. Climate in this sector of eastern Africa (unlike northern Africa) evolved from a predominantly arid environment with high-frequency variability to generally wetter conditions with more prolonged wet and dry intervals.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the engineering and design team of the Lake Malawi Scientific Drilling Project for overcoming substantial technical challenges associated with drilling on Lake Malawi, especially the efforts of D. Schnurrenberger, M. Pardy and Lengeek Vessel Engineering. B. Otto-Bliesner and S. Albani provided advice on climate model results relevant to this study. J. King provided the palaeomagnetic reversal data that contributed substantially to the age model of the Malawi sediment record. We thank the scientists and technicians of LacCore, University of Minnesota, for their assistance in the splitting, initial analyses, sampling and archiving of the sediment cores obtained by the Lake Malawi Drilling Project. Financial support was provided by the US National Science Foundation EAR and P2C2 programmes and by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program. S.S. and J.S.S.D. were supported by the Netherlands Earth System Science Centre (NESSC), which is financially supported by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW).

Author information

Author notes

    • R. P. Lyons

    Present address: Chevron Corporation, 1400 Smith Street, Houston, Texas 77002, USA.

Affiliations

  1. Large Lakes Observatory and Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Minnesota Duluth, Duluth, Minnesota 55812, USA

    • T. C. Johnson
    • , E. T. Brown
    • , B. A. Steinman
    • , J. Halbur
    •  & S. Grosshuesch
  2. Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003, USA

    • T. C. Johnson
  3. Department of Geology and Planetary Science, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15260, USA

    • J. P. Werne
  4. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales 2109, Australia

    • A. Abbott
  5. Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences, University of Notre Dame, 257 Fitzpatrick Hall, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556, USA

    • M. Berke
  6. Departamento de Química Ambiental and Centro de Investigación en Biodiversidad y Ambientes Sustentables (CIBAS), Universidad Católica de la Santísima Concepción, Casilla 297, Concepción, Chile

    • S. Contreras
  7. Berkeley Geochronology Center, 2455 Ridge Road, Berkeley, California 94709, USA

    • A. Deino
  8. Earth Sciences Department, Syracuse University, 011a Heroy Geology Laboratory, Syracuse, New York 13244, USA

    • C. A. Scholz
    •  & R. P. Lyons
  9. NIOZ Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Department of Marine Microbiology and Biogeochemistry, and Utrecht University, PO Box 59, 1790 AB Den Burg, The Netherlands

    • S. Schouten
    •  & J. S. Sinninghe Damsté
  10. Faculty of Geosciences, Department of Earth Sciences, Utrecht University, PO Box 80.021, 3508 TA Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • S. Schouten
    •  & J. S. Sinninghe Damsté

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Contributions

T.C.J., J.P.W. and E.T.B. conceptualized the project. C.A.S. and T.C.J. were two of the Principal Investigators on the Lake Malawi Drilling Project. J.P.W., J.S.S.D. and S.S. supervised and interpreted the biomarker analyses conducted by A.A., M.B., J.H., S.C. and S.G. E.T.B. supervised the X-ray fluorescence analyses for calcium. A.D. provided Ar–Ar dates on tephra. R.P.L. provided the lake level history. B.A.S. conducted the statistical analyses. T.C.J. and E.T.B. wrote the manuscript with substantial contributions from J.P.W., A.A., M.B., B.A.S., S.C., S.S. and J.S.S.D. All authors reviewed the paper prior to submission.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. C. Johnson.

The data used in this study are available as Supplementary Data.

Reviewer Information

Nature thanks K. Freeman, P. Polissar and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature19065

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