Climate-driven stress changes and normal fault behavior in the Lake Malawi (Nyasa) Rift, East Africa

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3 Scopus citations


Climate-triggered fluctuations of surface masses, including ice and water, can cause transient stress in the Earth's crust, further affecting the slip behavior of faults over different temporal and length scales. In particular, lakes developed within active continental rifts may modulate the stress states and slip rates of rift border faults and intrarift faults. Here, we utilize a numerical model in a case study of the Malawi (Nyasa) Rift to understand the response of faults to mass fluctuations on the Earth's surface. The water level of Lake Malawi rose 600 m over the last 150 kyr, and significantly influenced the stress state of faults in rift valley. We find that such water load fluctuations can exert 4.6 MPa normal stress on fault planes and produce a negative Coulomb stress (down to −2.0 MPa) on fault planes as well as a pronounced reduction of slip (∼2 m) on fault planes within the rift. Moreover, along-strike differences in fault geometries and their position relative to the center of the water column load resulted in variable along-strike stress and slip changes. These results suggest that lakes that develop within continental rifts play an important role in the evolution of extensional faulting. Our case study provides a basis for evaluating the relationship between climate-driven surface mass variations and the subsurface stress state of fault planes and associated seismic potentials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117693
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Sep 1 2022


  • Malawi Rift
  • border fault
  • intrarift fault
  • lake load
  • slip rate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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