The sensitivity of East African rift lakes to climate fluctuations

Abstract

Sequences of paleo-shorelines and the deposits of rift lakes are used to reconstruct past climate changes in East Africa. These recorders of hydrological changes in the Rift Valley indicate extreme lake-level variations on the order of tens to hundreds of meters during the last 20,000 years. Lake-balance and climate modeling results, on the other hand, suggest relatively moderate changes in the precipitation-evaporation balance during that time interval. What could cause such a disparity? We investigated the physical characteristics and hydrology of lake basins to resolve this difference. Nine closed-basin lakes, Ziway-Shalla, Awassa, Turkana, Suguta, Baringo-Bogoria, Nakuru-Elmenteita, Naivasha, Magadi-Natron, Manyara, and open-basin Lake Victoria in the eastern branch of the East African Rift System (EARS) were used for this study. We created a classification scheme of lake response to climate based on empirical measures of topography (hypsometric integral) and climate (aridity index). With reference to early Holocene lake levels, we found that lakes in the crest of the Ethiopian and Kenyan domes were most sensitive to recording regional climatic shifts. Their hypsometric values fall between 0.23–0.29, in a graben-shaped basin, and their aridity index is above unity (humid). Of the ten lakes, three lakes in the EARS are sensitive lakes: Naivasha (HI = 0.23, AI = 1.20) in the Kenya Rift, Awassa (HI = 0.23, AI = 1.03) and Ziway-Shalla (HI = 0.23, AI = 1.33) in the Main Ethiopian Rift (Main Ethiopian Rift). Two lakes have the graben shape, but lower aridity indices, and thus Lakes Suguta (HI = 0.29, AI = 0.43) and Nakuru-Elmenteita (HI = 0.30, AI = 0.85) are most sensitive to local climate changes. Though relatively shallow and slightly alkaline today, they fluctuated by four to ten times the modern water depth during the last 20,000 years. Five of the study lakes are pan-shaped and experienced lower magnitudes of lake level change during the same time period. Understanding the sensitivity of these lakes is critical in establishing the timing or synchronicity of regional-scale events or trends and predicting future hydrological variations in the wake of global climate changes.

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Correspondence to Lydia A. Olaka.

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Olaka, L.A., Odada, E.O., Trauth, M.H. et al. The sensitivity of East African rift lakes to climate fluctuations. J Paleolimnol 44, 629–644 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10933-010-9442-4

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Keywords

  • East African Rift
  • Tectonics
  • Geomorphometry
  • Aridity index
  • Sensitive lakes