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date: 03 March 2021

Quaternary Climate Variation in Southern Africalocked

  • David S. G. ThomasDavid S. G. ThomasUniversity of Oxford, School of Geography and Environment


Quaternary paleoclimate reconstructions in tropical-subtropical southern Africa (taken here as approximately south of latitude 17oS) require both knowledge of the key relevant elements of the atmospheric and climate systems over the subcontinent and a realistic assessment of the possibilities and limitations of the proxy data sources in the region. Direct insolation forcing and southern hemisphere ocean temperature changes are widely considered as key drivers of temporal and spatial changes in the relative influence of different components of the circulation system (tropical Indian ocean monsoon, tropical Atlantic moisture, and temperate westerlies) that in turn drive precipitation distributions, amounts, and seasonality. Major debates in recent decades have focused on the timing and extent of aridity/humidity shifts, and the relative contribution of temperate and tropical sources of precipitation during the last ca. 100 ka, notably at the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) and during the Holocene climate optimum.

Many of the debates and uncertainties that have emerged are also a function of proxy data sources: where they are located, how they are interpreted, and their resolution. Extrapolation of data from marine core and high-resolution terrestrial records to subregions where proxies are sparse, low resolution, or difficult to transform from environmental to climatic signals, might oversimply representation of the spatial variability of past climates in a region where variability is a norm today. For example, difficulties can occur in the southern African interior, where reliable climate proxies have been limited and where available proxies provide reconstructions of physical changes in landscape systems that can prove difficult to translate to high precision hydrological and rainfall records. Elsewhere, where new proxies have been emerging, such as data from hyrax middens and developments in interpreting palynological and isotope records, notable advances have been occurring, leading to the reanalysis of hydrological fluxes in the last 50 ka, including the development of records with high temporal resolution.

In this article some of the key issues surrounding the Quaternary climates of southern Africa are considered, focusing on debates regarding the principal drivers of climate changes, the utility of different proxy data sources, and the temporal and spatial extent of past climate changes.

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