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Role of dynamic topography in sustaining the Nile River over 30 million years

Abstract

The Nile is the longest river on Earth and has persisted for millions of years. It has been suggested that the Nile in its present path is ~6 million years old, whereas others argue that it may have formed much earlier in geological history. Here we present geological evidence and geodynamic model results that suggest that the Nile drainage has been stable for ~30 million years. We suggest that the Nile’s longevity in essentially the same path is sustained by the persistence of a stable topographic gradient, which in turn is controlled by deeper mantle processes. We propose that a large mantle convection cell beneath the Nile region has controlled topography over the last 30 million years, inducing uplift in the Ethiopian–Yemen Dome and subsidence in the Levant Sea and northern Egypt. We conclude that the drainage system of large rivers and their evolution over time can be sustained by a dynamic topographic gradient.

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Fig. 1: The East Africa–eastern Mediterranean sediment transport system.
Fig. 2: Evolution of the Ethiopian–Yemen Plateau topography (source) compared with the Nile Delta sedimentation volume (sink).
Fig. 3: Dynamic topography and topographic change of the Nile drainage over ~60 Myr.
Fig. 4: Changes in dynamic surface topography of a Nile Basin transect over 55 Myr.

Data availability

Mantle and dynamic topography data analysed in this study were previously published in refs. 39,40. Additional data related to this paper have been deposited with the Geotop Research Centre on the Dynamics of the Earth System (https://www.geotop.ca/fr/recherche/donnees/geophysique). Crustal data and residual topography data are available in Zenodo with the identifier https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3405359. Data from the Levant basin were previously published28 and are available at the website of the subsurface research lab at Geological Society of Israel (http://www.gsi.gov.il/eng/?CategoryID=239&ArticleID=598). Data on the evolution of the Ethiopian Plateau were published in ref. 32.

Code availability

Mantle-flow kernels employed to calculate mantle temperature structure and the dynamic topography predictions have been published in ref. 58 and deposited with the Geotop Research Centre on the Dynamics of the Earth System (https://www.geotop.ca/fr/recherche/donnees/geophysique). Figure 3 and Supplementary Fig. 3 were drawn using the Generic Mapping Tools (ref. 49, https://www.soest.hawaii.edu/gmt/).

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Acknowledgements

C.F., A.S. and E.G. are supported by a MIUR Dipartimento Eccellenza grant. T.W.B. was supported by NASA OSP 201601412. P.G. and A.F. acknowledge support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Grant 217272-2013-RGPIN). A.F. was supported by the University of Florida. The convection simulations in this study were carried out thanks to supercomputing facilities of Calcul Québec consortia at Université de Montréal and on the HiPerGator at the University of Florida.

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C.F. with T.W.B. conceived this study and estimated the residual and present-day dynamic topography. C.F. led writing the manuscript. P.G. and A.F. provided the mantle convection simulations and associated time-evolving dynamic topography calculations, E.G. contributed to constraints on the evolution of the Nile Basin, A.S. and C.F. on the Ethiopian highlands and Z.G. on the Levant Basin–Nile Delta evolution. All authors contributed to the writing and discussion of the science.

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Correspondence to Claudio Faccenna.

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Faccenna, C., Glišović, P., Forte, A. et al. Role of dynamic topography in sustaining the Nile River over 30 million years. Nat. Geosci. 12, 1012–1017 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0472-x

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