Spatio-Temporal Variations in Sediment Delivery as a Response to Rapid Quaternary Climate Change in the Lake Malawi Rift, East Africa

Lachlan J.M. Wright, Christopher A. Scholz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The interplay of rapid climate change and tectonics drives landscape development, sediment routing, and deposition in early-stage continental rift systems. The Lake Malawi Rift, in the Western Branch of the East African Rift, is an archetype of a juvenile rift and an ideal natural laboratory for evaluating lacustrine source-to-sink systems on orbital or shorter timescales. We examine the interplay of these processes over the past 140 kyr using observations from nested seismic reflection data sets tied to scientific drill cores, which calibrate numerical forward models of this closed sedimentary system. Fault slip rates measured from seismic data drive tectonic displacements in the model. Satellite-derived precipitation maps constrain modern precipitation and are scaled to previous hydrologic balance studies to reconstruct past climates. Our model reproduces known sediment thicknesses across the rift and accounts for 96% of the estimated siliciclastic sediment deposited over the past 140 kyr. The results demonstrate that the onset of arid climate conditions (140–95 kyr BP) causes extreme drainage adjustments downstream and the formation of mega-catchments that flow axially into a shallow restricted paleo-lake. Sedimentation rates during this time are twice the present values due to increased sediment focusing via these axial systems into a much smaller, hydrologically closed lake. As the climate became wetter (95–50 kyr BP), the lake rapidly expanded, decreasing both erosion and sedimentation rates across the rift. This closed-loop approach allows us to evaluate the role of high-frequency climate change in modulating basin physiography as well as sediment fluxes in juvenile rift systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2022JF007027
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2023


  • East African rift
  • Lake Malawi
  • Quaternary
  • climate change
  • landscape evolution
  • source to sink

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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