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Late-twentieth-century warming in Lake Tanganyika unprecedented since AD 500

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Abstract

Instrumental observations suggest that Lake Tanganyika, the largest rift lake in East Africa, has become warmer, increasingly stratified and less productive over the past 90 years (refs 12). These trends have been attributed to anthropogenic climate change. However, it remains unclear whether the decrease in productivity is linked to the temperature rise3,4, and whether the twentieth-century trends are anomalous within the context of longer-term variability. Here, we use the TEX86 temperature proxy, the weight per cent of biogenic silica and charcoal abundance from Lake Tanganyika sediment cores to reconstruct lake-surface temperature, productivity and regional wildfire frequency, respectively, for the past 1,500 years. We detect a negative correlation between lake-surface temperature and primary productivity, and our estimates of fire frequency, and hence humidity, preclude decreased nutrient input through runoff as a cause for observed periods of low productivity. We suggest that, throughout the past 1,500 years, rising lake-surface temperatures increased the stratification of the lake water column, preventing nutrient recharge from below and limiting primary productivity. Our records indicate that changes in the temperature of Lake Tanganyika in the past few decades exceed previous natural variability. We conclude that these unprecedented temperatures and a corresponding decrease in productivity can be attributed to anthropogenic global warming, with potentially important implications for the Lake Tanganyika fishery.

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Figure 1: The location of Lake Tanganyika, East Africa and the sediment cores KH1 and MC1 analysed in this study.
Figure 2: The Lake Tanganyika palaeorecord for the past 1,500 years.
Figure 3: A comparison between Lake Tanganyika LST and global temperature trends and forcings.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Y. Huang and M. Alexandre for laboratory analytical assistance. We also thank the Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI), the University of Dar es Salaam and the crew of the M/V Maman Benita for assistance in the field. This research was supported by NSF-EAR 0639474 to J.M.R. and the Nyanza Project (NSF-ATM 0223920 to A.S.C.).

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Contributions

J.E.T. designed the experiment, assisted with the laboratory analyses, analysed the results and wrote the paper. M.T.M. produced the majority of the biogenic silica and TEX86 data and assisted in writing the manuscript. N.M. produced the remaining biogenic silica and TEX86 data. C.J. and A.S.C. produced the charcoal data. P.W.S. was responsible for the 210Pb analyses and multicore age model. J.M.R. and A.S.C. helped design the experiment and supervised the project.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jessica E. Tierney.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Tierney, J., Mayes, M., Meyer, N. et al. Late-twentieth-century warming in Lake Tanganyika unprecedented since AD 500. Nature Geosci 3, 422–425 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo865

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