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date: 25 February 2021

Quaternary Climate Variation in Eastern Africalocked

  • Thomas C. JohnsonThomas C. JohnsonLarge Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota Duluth


The people of East Africa are particularly vulnerable to the whims of their regional climate. A rapidly growing population depends heavily on rain-fed agriculture, and when the rains deviate from normal, creating severe drought or flooding, the toll can be devastating in terms of starvation, disease, and political instability. Humanity depends upon climate models to ascertain how the climate will change in the coming decades, in response to anthropogenic forcing, to better comprehend what lies in store for East African society, and how they might best cope with the circumstances. These climate models are tested for their accuracy by comparing their output of past climate conditions against what we know of how the climate has evolved. East African climate has undergone dramatic change, as indicated by lake shorelines exposed several tens of meters above present lake levels, by seismic reflection profiles in lake basins displaying submerged and buried nearshore sedimentary sequences, and by the fossil and chemical records preserved in lake sediments, which indicate dramatic past change in lake water chemistry and biota, both within the lakes and in their catchments, in response to shifting patterns of rainfall and temperature. This history, on timescales from decades to millennia, and the mechanisms that account for the observed past climate variation, are summarized in this article. The focus of this article is on paleoclimate data and not on climate models, which are discussed thoroughly in an accompanying article in this volume. Very briefly, regional climate variability over the past few centuries has been attributed to shifting patterns of sea surface temperature in the Indian Ocean. The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) was an arid period throughout most of East Africa, with the exception of the coastal terrain), and the region did not experience much wetter conditions until around 15,000 years ago (15 ka). A brief return to drier times occurred during the Younger Dryas (YD) (12.9–11.7 ka), and then a wet African Humid Period until about 5 ka, after which the region, at least north of Lake Malawi at ~10º S latitude, became relatively dry again. The penultimate ice age was much drier than the LGM, and such megadroughts occurred several times over the previous 1.3 million years. While the African continent north of the equator experienced, on average, progressively drier conditions over the past few million years, unusually wet periods occurred around 2.7–2.5, 1.9–1.7, and 1.1–0.7 million years ago. By contrast, the Lake Malawi basin at ~10º—14º S latitude has undergone a trend of progressively wetter conditions superimposed on a glacial–dry, interglacial–wet cycle since the Mid-Pleistocene Transition at ~900 ka.

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