, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 141-164

The Late Pleistocene - Holocene palaeolimnology of Lake Victoria, East Africa, based upon elemental and isotopic analyses of sedimentary organic matter

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Abstract

Three piston cores from Lake Victoria (East Africa) have been analysed for organic carbon (TOC) and nitrogen (TN) content, stable isotopes (δ13C and δ15N), and Hydrogen Index (HI). These data are combined with published biogenic silica and water content analyses to produce a detailed palaeolimnological history of the lake over the past ca. 17.5 ka. Late Pleistocene desiccation produced a lake-wide discontinuity marked by a vertisol. Sediments below the discontinuity are characterised by relatively low TOC and HI values, and high C/N, δ13C and δ15N, reflecting the combined influence of abundant terrestrial plant material and generally unfavourable conditions for organic matter preservation. A thin muddy interval with lower δ13C and higher HI and water content indicates that dry conditions were interrupted by a humid period of a few hundred years duration when the lake was at least 35 m deep. The climate changed to significantly more humid conditions around 15.2 ka when the dry lake floor was rapidly flooded. Abundant macrophytic plant debris and high TOC and δ13C values at the upper vertisol surface probably reflect a marginal swamp. δ13C values decrease abruptly and HI begins to increase around 15 ka BP, marking a shift to deeper-water conditions and algal-dominated lake production. C/N values are relatively low during this period, suggesting a generally adequate supply of nitrogen, but increasing δ15N values reflect intense utilisation of the lake's DIN reservoir, probably due to a dramatic rise in productivity as nutrients were released to the lake from the flooded land surface.

An abrupt drop in δ13C and δ15N values around 13.8-13.6 ka reflects a period of deep mixing. Productivity increased due to more efficient nutrient recycling, and δ13C values fell as 12C-rich CO2 released by bacterial decomposition of the organic material was brought into the epilimnion. A weak drop in HI values suggests greater oxygen supply to the hypolimnion at this time. Better mixing was probably due to increased wind intensity and may mark the onset of the Younger Dryas in the region.

After the period of deep mixing, the water column became more stable. TOC, C/N, δ13C and HI values were at a maximum during the period between 10 and 4 ka, when the lake probably had a stratified water column with anoxic bottom waters. A gradual decrease in values over the last 4000 yrs suggest a change to a more seasonal climate, with periodic mixing of the water column. Rising sediment accumulation rates and a trend to more uniform surface water conditions over the last 2000 yrs are probably a result of increased anthropogenic impact on the lake and its catchment.

Following a maximum at the time of the rapid lake-level rise during the terminal Pleistocene, δ15N has remained relatively low and displays a gradual but consistent trend to lower values from the end of the Pleistocene to the present. TN values have risen during the same period. The lack of correlation between δ13C and δ15N, and the absence of any evidence for isotopic reservoir effects despite the rise in TN, suggests that the atmosphere, rather than the lake's dissolved nitrogen pool has been the principal source of nitrogen throughout the Holocene. The importance of atmospheric N fixation to Lake Victoria's nitrogen cycle thus predates by a very considerable margin any possible anthropogenic eutrophication of the lake.