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Press Release 11-039
Ancient Catastrophic Drought Leads to Question: How Severe Can Climate Change Become?

Extreme megadrought in Afro-Asian region likely had consequences for Paleolithic cultures

Photo of a boat on the shoreline of Lake Tanganyika.

A boat on Lake Tanganyika today; the lake's ancient surface water level fell dramatically.
Credit and Larger Version

February 24, 2011

How severe can climate change become in a warming world?

Worse than anything we've seen in written history, according to results of a study appearing this week in the journal Science.

An international team of scientists led by Curt Stager of Paul Smith's College, New York, has compiled four dozen paleoclimate records from sediment cores in Lake Tanganyika and other locations in Africa.

The records show that one of the most widespread and intense droughts of the last 50,000 years or more struck Africa and Southern Asia 17,000 to 16,000 years ago.

Between 18,000 and 15,000 years ago, large amounts of ice and meltwater entered the North Atlantic Ocean, causing regional cooling but also major drought in the tropics, says Paul Filmer, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research along with NSF's Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences and its Division of Ocean Sciences.

"The height of this time period coincided with one of the most extreme megadroughts of the last 50,000 years in the Afro-Asian monsoon region with potentially serious consequences for the Paleolithic humans that lived there at the time," says Filmer.

The "H1 megadrought," as it's known, was one of the most severe climate trials ever faced by anatomically modern humans.

Africa's Lake Victoria, now the world's largest tropical lake, dried out, as did Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and Lake Van in Turkey.

The Nile, Congo and other major rivers shriveled, and Asian summer monsoons weakened or failed from China to the Mediterranean, meaning the monsoon season carried little or no rainwater.

What caused the megadrought remains a mystery, but its timing suggests a link to Heinrich Event 1 (or "H1"), a massive surge of icebergs and meltwater into the North Atlantic at the close of the last ice age.

Previous studies had implicated southward drift of the tropical rain belt as a localized cause, but the broad geographic coverage in this study paints a more nuanced picture. 

"If southward drift were the only cause," says Stager, lead author of the Science paper, "we'd have found evidence of wetting farther south. But the megadrought hit equatorial and southeastern Africa as well, so the rain belt didn't just move--it also weakened."

Climate models have yet to simulate the full scope of the event.

The lack of a complete explanation opens the question of whether an extreme megadrought could strike again as the world warms and de-ices further.

"There's much less ice left to collapse into the North Atlantic now," Stager says, "so I'd be surprised if it could all happen again--at least on such a huge scale."

Given what such a catastrophic megadrought could do to today's most densely populated regions of the globe, Stager hopes he's right.

Stager also holds an adjunct position at the Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, Orono.

Co-authors of the paper are David Ryves of Loughborough University in the United Kingdom; Brian Chase of the Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution de Montpellier in France and the Department of Archaeology, University of Bergen, Norway; and Francesco Pausata of the Geophysical Institute, University of Bergen, Norway.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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Photo of researchers conducting sediment coring to retrieve samples from Lake Tanganyika's floor.
Researchers conduct sediment coring to retrieve samples from Lake Tanganyika's floor.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of the Ugandan trawler that was used to extract cores from the bottom of Lake Victoria.
The Ugandan trawler Ibis was used to extract cores from the bottom of Lake Victoria.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of a boat in a wetland along Lake Victoria.
A wetland along Lake Victoria today, analogous to ancient drought conditions.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of microscopic grass phytolith from one of the Lake Victoria core samples.
Microscopic grass phytolith, or "plant stone," from one of the Lake Victoria core samples.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of Lake Elmenteita, Kenya.
Lake Elmenteita, Kenya: what Lake Victoria would have looked like in a shrunken state.
Credit and Larger Version

Cover of the February 25, 2011 issue of the journal Science.
The researchers' findings are described in the Feb. 25, 2011 issue of the journal Science.
Credit and Larger Version



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