From the end of the last glacial stage until the mid-Holocene, large areas of arid and semi-arid North Africa were much wetter than present, during the interval that is known as the African Humid Period (AHP). During this time, large areas were characterized by a marked increase in precipitation, an expansion of lakes, river systems, and wetlands, and the spread of grassland, shrub land, and woodland vegetation into areas that are currently much drier. Simulations with climate models indicate that the AHP was the result of orbitally forced increase in northern hemisphere summer insolation, which caused the intensification and northward expansion of the boreal summer monsoon. However, feedbacks from ocean circulation, land-surface cover, and greenhouse gases were probably also important. Lake basins and their sediment archives have provided important information about climate during the AHP, including the overall increases in precipitation and in rates, trajectories, and spatial variations in change at the beginning and the end of the interval. The general pattern is one of apparently synchronous onset of the AHP at the start of the Bølling-Allerød interstadial around 14,700 years ago, although wet conditions were interrupted by aridity during the Younger Dryas stadial. Wetter conditions returned at the start of the Holocene around 11,700 years ago covering much of North Africa and extended into parts of the southern hemisphere, including southeastern Equatorial Africa. During this time, the expansion of lakes and of grassland or shrub land vegetation over the area that is now the Sahara desert, was especially marked. Increasing aridity through the mid-Holocene, associated with a reduction in northern hemisphere summer insolation, brought about the end of the AHP by around 5000–4000 years before present. The degree to which this end was abrupt or gradual and geographically synchronous or time transgressive, remains open to debate. Taken as a whole, the lake sediment records do not support rapid and synchronous declines in precipitation and vegetation across the whole of North Africa, as some model experiments and other palaeoclimate archives have suggested. Lake sediments from basins that desiccated during the mid-Holocene may have been deflated, thus providing a misleading picture of rapid change. Moreover, different proxies of climate or environment may respond in contrasting ways to the same changes in climate. Despite this, there is evidence of rapid (within a few hundred years) termination to the AHP in some regions, with clear signs of a time-transgressive response both north to south and east to west, pointing to complex controls over the mid-Holocene drying of North Africa.
Jonathan Holmes and Philipp Hoelzmann
Thomas C. Johnson
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.
Wilfried Haeberli, Johannes Oerlemans, and Michael Zemp
Like many comparable mountain ranges at lower latitudes, the European Alps are increasingly losing their glaciers. Following roughly 10,000 years of limited climate and glacier variability, with a slight trend of increasing glacier sizes to Holocene maximum extents of the Little Ice Age, glaciers in the Alps started to generally retreat after 1850. Long-term observations with a monitoring network of unique density document this development. Strong acceleration of mass losses started to take place after 1980 as related to accelerating atmospheric temperature rise. Model calculations, using simple to high-complexity approaches and relating to individual glaciers as well as to large samples of glaciers, provide robust results concerning scenarios for the future: under the influence of greenhouse-gas forced global warming, glaciers in the Alps will largely disappear within the 21st century. Anticipating and modeling new landscapes and land-forming processes in de-glaciating areas is an emerging research field based on modeled glacier-bed topographies that are likely to become future surface topographies. Such analyses provide a knowledge basis to early planning of sustainable adaptation strategies, for example, concerning opportunities and risks related to the formation of glacial lakes in over-deepened parts of presently still ice-covered glacier beds.