International Journal of Earth Sciences

, Volume 105, Issue 6, pp 1779–1794 | Cite as

The East African Rift System and the impact of orographic changes on regional climate and the resulting aridification

  • Anja Sommerfeld
  • Kerstin Prömmel
  • Ulrich Cubasch
Original Paper


Several proxy data indicate an aridification of the East African climate during the Neogene, which might be influenced by the orographic changes of the East African Rift System (EARS) induced by tectonic forcing during the last 20 million years. To investigate the impact of the orography and especially of the rifts, the regional climate model CCLM is used, covering the EARS with Lake Victoria in the centre of the model domain. CCLM is driven by the ERA-Interim reanalysis and applied with a double-nesting method resulting in a very high spatial resolution of 7 km. The resolution clearly shows the shoulders and rifts of the western and eastern branch of the EARS and the Rwenzoris within the western branch. To analyse the orographic influence on climate, a new technique of modifying the orography is used in this sensitivity study. The shoulders of the branches are lowered and the rifts are elevated, resulting in a smoothed orography structure with less altitude difference between the shoulders and rifts. The changes in 2 m-temperature are very local and associated with the changes in the orography. The vertically integrated moisture transport is characterised by less vortices, and its zonal component is increased over the branches. The resulting amount of precipitation is mainly decreased west of the western branch and increased in the rift of the western branch. In the eastern branch, however, the changes in the amount of precipitation are not significant. The changes in the precipitation and temperature patterns lead to a shift of biomes towards a vegetation coverage characterised by more humid conditions in the northern part of the model domain and more arid conditions in the South. Thus, the aridification found in the proxy data can be attributed to the orographic changes of the rifts only in the northern model domain.


Climate simulation East African Rift System Orographic forcing Aridification Paleo-climate 



This study was funded by the German Research Council (DFG, Bonn) via research unit 703 (RiftLink). The CCLM applied for this work was provided by the CLM-Community. The simulations were performed at the German Climate Computing Center (DKRZ, Hamburg). We thank three anonymous reviewers and the editor Dieter Mertz for constructive comments, which helped to significantly improve the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anja Sommerfeld
    • 1
    • 2
  • Kerstin Prömmel
    • 1
  • Ulrich Cubasch
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of MeteorologyFreie Universität BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine ResearchResearch Unit PotsdamPotsdamGermany

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