, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 253-271

Paleolimnological records of recent glacier recession in the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda-D. R. Congo

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Abstract

The status of tropical glaciers is enormously important to our understanding of past, present, and future climate change, yet lack of continuous quantitative records of alpine glacier extent on the highest mountains of tropical East Africa prior to the 20th century has left the timing and drivers of recent glacier recession in the region equivocal. Here we investigate recent changes (the last 150–700 years) in lacustrine sedimentation, glacier extent, and biogeochemical processes in the Rwenzori Mountains (Uganda- Democratic Republic of Congo) by comparing sedimentological (organic and siliciclastic component determined by loss-on-ignition; LOI) and organic geochemical profiles (carbon and nitrogen abundance, ratio, and isotopic composition of sedimentary organic matter) from lakes occupying presently glaciated catchments against similar profiles from lakes located in catchments lacking glaciers. The siliciclastic content of sediments in the ‘glacial lakes’ significantly decreases towards the present, whereas ‘non-glacial lakes’ generally show weak trends in their siliciclastic content over time, demonstrating that changes in the siliciclastic content of glacial lake sediments primarily record fluctuations in glacier extent. Radiometric dating of our sediment cores indicates that prior to their late 19th-century recession Rwenzori glaciers stood at expanded ‘Little Ice Age’ positions for several centuries under a regionally dry climate regime, and that recession was underway by 1870 AD, during a regionally wet episode. These findings suggest that the influence of late 19th century reductions in precipitation in triggering Rwenzori glacier recession is weaker than previously thought. Our organic geochemical data indicate that glacier retreat has significantly affected carbon cycling in Afroalpine lakes, but trends in aquatic ecosystem functioning are variable among lakes and require more detailed analysis.