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date: 05 March 2021

Tectonic Dynamics in the African Rift Valley and Climate Changelocked

  • Uwe RingUwe RingDepartment of Geosciences, Stockholm University


The East African Rift System (EARS) transecting the high-elevation East African plateau is one of the most outstanding rift systems on earth. Rifting was caused by a huge uprising mantle plume under East Africa. Two distinct rift branches are distinguished: an older, volcanically very active Eastern Branch and a younger, much less volcanic Western Branch. The Eastern Branch is generally characterized by high elevation, whereas the Western Branch comprises a number of deep rift lakes (e.g., Lake Tanganyika, Lake Malaŵi). These differences reflect different plate strengths, the latter of which are largely governed by differences in how the mantle plume interacted with the East African lithosphere. Much of the topography forming the East African plateau has been caused by the uprising mantle plume. The onset of topographic uplift in the EARS is poorly dated but preceded graben development, the latter of which commenced at ~24 Ma in the Ethiopian Rift, at ~12 Ma in Kenya, and at ~10 Ma in the Western Branch. Increased uplift of the East African plateau since ~15–10 Ma might be connected to climate change in East Africa and human evolution. East Africa experienced cooling starting at 15.5–12.5 Ma that heralded profound faunal changes at 8–5 Ma, when the hominin lineage split from the chimpanzee lineage. The Pliocene is characterized by warm and wet climate between 5.3 and 3.3 Ma transitioning into a period of cooler and more arid conditions after ~3 Ma. The climate in the EARS is controlled by westerly monsoonal flow over equatorial West Africa and easterly monsoonal flow over the Indian Ocean. The uplifting East African plateau intercepted those winds and contributed to the increased aridification of East Africa.

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