Hydrology across scales : sensitivity of East African lakes to climate changes
Olaka, Lydia Atieno
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The lakes of the East African Rift System (EARS) have been intensively studied to better understand the influence of climate change on hydrological systems. The exceptional sensitivity of these rift lakes, however, is both a challenge and an opportunity when trying to reconstruct past climate changes from changes in the hydrological budget of lake basins on timescales 100 to 104 years. On one hand, differences in basin geometrics (shape, area, volume, depth), catchment rainfall distributions and varying erosion-deposition rates complicate regional interpretation of paleoclimate information from lacustrine sediment proxies. On the other hand, the sensitivity of rift lakes often provides paleoclimate records of excellent quality characterized by a high signal-to-noise ratio. This study aims at better understanding of the climate-proxy generating process in rift lakes by parameterizing the geomorphological and hydroclimatic conditions of a particular site providing a step towards the establishment of regional calibrations of transfer functions for climate reconstructions. The knowledge of the sensitivity of a lake basin to climate change furthermore is crucial for a better assessment of the probability of catastrophic changes in the future, which bear risks for landscapes, ecosystems, and organisms of all sorts, including humans. Part 1 of this thesis explores the effect of the morphology and the effective moisture of a lake catchment. The availability of digital elevation models (DEM) and gridded climate data sets facilitates the comparison of the morphological and hydroclimatic conditions of rift lakes. I used the hypsometric integral (HI) calculated from Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data to describe the morphology of ten lake basins in Kenya and Ethiopia. The aridity index (AI) describing the difference in the precipitation/evaporation balance within a catchment was used to compare the hydroclimatic of these basins. Correlating HI and AI with published Holocene lake-level variations revealed that lakes responding sensitively to relatively moderate climate change are typically graben shaped and characterized by a HI between 0.23-0.30, and relatively humid conditions with AI >1. These amplifier lakes, a term first introduced but not fully parameterized by Alayne Street-Perrott in the early 80s, are unexceptionally located in the crest of the Kenyan and Ethiopian domes. The non-amplifier lakes in the EARS either have lower HI 0.13-0.22 and higher AI (>1) or higher HI (0.31-0.37) and low AI (<1), reflecting pan-shaped morphologies with more arid hydroclimatic conditions. Part 2 of this work addresses the third important factor to be considered when using lake-level and proxy records to unravel past climate changes in the EARS: interbasin connectivity and groundwater flow through faulted and porous subsurface lithologies in a rift setting. First, I have compiled the available hydrogeological data including lithology, resistivity and water-well data for the adjacent Naivasha and Elmenteita-Nakuru basins in the Central Kenya Rift. Using this subsurface information and established records of lake-level decline at the last wet-dry climate transitions, i.e., the termination of the African Humid Period (AHP, 15 to 5 kyr BP), I used a linear decay model to estimate typical groundwater flow between the two basins. The results suggest a delayed response of the groundwater levels of ca. 5 kyrs if no recharge of groundwater occurs during the wet-dry transition, whereas the lag is 2-2.7 kyrs only using the modern recharge of ca. 0.52 m/yr. The estimated total groundwater flow from higher Lake Naivasha (1,880 m a.s.l. during the AHP) to Nakuru-Elmenteita (1,770 m) was 40 cubic kilometers. The unexpectedly large volume, more than half of the volume of the paleo-Lake Naivasha during the Early Holocene, emphasizes the importance of groundwater in hydrological modeling of paleo-lakes in rifts. Moreover, the subsurface connectivity of rift lakes also causes a significant lag time to the system introducing a nonlinear component to the system that has to be considered while interpreting paleo-lake records. Part 3 of this thesis investigated the modern intraseasonal precipitation variability within eleven lake basins discussed in the first section of the study excluding Lake Victoria and including Lake Tana. Remotely sensed rainfall estimates (RFE) from FEWS NET for 1996-2010, are used for the, March April May (MAM) July August September (JAS), October November (ON) and December January February (DJF). The seasonal precipitation are averaged and correlated with the prevailing regional and local climatic mechanisms. Results show high variability with Biennial to Triennial precipitation patterns. The spatial distribution of precipitation in JAS are linked to the onset and strength of the Congo Air Boundary (CAB) and Indian Summer Monsoon (ISM) dynamics. while in ON they are related to the strength of Positive ENSO and IOD phases This study describes the influence of graben morphologies, extreme climate constrasts within catchments and basins connectivity through faults and porous lithologies on rift lakes. Hence, it shows the importance of a careful characterization of a rift lake by these parameters prior to concluding from lake-level and proxy records to climate changes. Furthermore, this study highlights the exceptional sensitivity of rift lakes to relatively moderate climate change and its consequences for water availability to the biosphere including humans.