Coherent high- and low-latitude control of the northwest African hydrological balance

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The evolution of the northwest African hydrological balance throughout the Pleistocene epoch influenced the migration of prehistoric humans1. The hydrological balance is also thought to be important to global teleconnection mechanisms during Dansgaard–Oeschger and Heinrich events2. However, most high-resolution African climate records do not span the millennial-scale climate changes of the last glacial–interglacial cycle1,3,4,5, or lack an accurate chronology6. Here, we use grain-size analyses of siliciclastic marine sediments from off the coast of Mauritania to reconstruct changes in northwest African humidity over the past 120,000 years. We compare this reconstruction to simulations of palaeo-humidity from a coupled atmosphere–ocean–vegetation model. These records are in good agreement, and indicate the reoccurrence of precession-forced humid periods during the last interglacial period similar to the Holocene African Humid Period. We suggest that millennial-scale arid events are associated with a reduction of the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation and that millennial-scale humid events are linked to a regional increase of winter rainfall over the coastal regions of northwest Africa.

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Figure 1: Average precipitation rates, surface wind direction and strength over the northeastern Atlantic for boreal winter and summer.
Figure 2: Palaeoenvironmental records of the NGRIP ice core, MD95 2042 and GeoB7920 for the last 120 kyr BP.
Figure 3: Model–data comparison of the northern Africa humidity and vegetation cover during the last 120 kyr BP.
Figure 4: Model–data comparison of the northern Africa humidity and vegetation cover from 65 to 15 kyr BP.

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  • 18 September 2008

    The name of the first affiliation has changed, and has been corrected for all versions of this Letter.


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We thank the crew and participants of Meteor cruise M53/1. The authors acknowledge G. J. Weltje for providing the End-Member Model Algorithm and the constructive discussion with A. Ganopolski, E. Bauer, V. Brovkin, H. Arz and M. Prins. M. Segl is thanked for supervising the stable isotope analyses. This research was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft as part of the DFG Research Center for Ocean Margins of the University of Bremen.

Author information

Experimental work, data analysis and interpretation of the proxy data were carried out by R.T., J.B.W.S., T.B., F.L. and U.R. The CLIMBER model simulations were set up and carried out by M.C., J.F. and A.J.

Correspondence to Rik Tjallingii or Martin Claussen.

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Tjallingii, R., Claussen, M., Stuut, J. et al. Coherent high- and low-latitude control of the northwest African hydrological balance. Nature Geosci 1, 670–675 (2008) doi:10.1038/ngeo289

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