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

Nature Geoscience volume 3, pages 422425 (2010) | Download Citation



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 1,​2). 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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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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  1. Brown University Department of Geological Sciences, Box #1846, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA

    • Jessica E. Tierney
    • , Marc T. Mayes
    • , Natacha Meyer
    •  & James M. Russell
  2. Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1710 University Ave., Madison, Wisconsin 53726, USA

    • Marc T. Mayes
  3. Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona, 1040 E 4th St., Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA

    • Christopher Johnson
    •  & Andrew S. Cohen
  4. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA

    • Christopher Johnson
  5. United States Geological Survey, 400 Natural Bridges Drive, Santa Cruz, California 95060, USA

    • Peter W. Swarzenski


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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.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jessica E. Tierney.

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