A multi-isotope and modelling approach for constraining hydro-connectivity in the East African Rift System, southern Ethiopia

M. Markowska, A. N. Martin, H. B. Vonhof, D. Guinoiseau, M. L. Fischer, B. Zinaye, S. J.G. Galer, A. Asrat, A. Junginger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


During the last African Humid Period (AHP; 15–5 ka), many lakes in the East African Rift System (EARS) experienced pronounced lake-level variations that dramatically transformed the hydrological landscape. Currently dry, saline or marshy-wetland terminal lakes became vast waterbodies, interconnected via overflow sills resulting in the formation of a several thousand-kilometre-long chain of lakes in the EARS. A quantitative, process-based understanding of these hydrological systems can advance our interpretation of past hydroclimate variability from proxy records. Here, we provide a critical modern hydrological dataset for the data-sparse Lake Chew Bahir basin in southern Ethiopia. Driven by modern data, an isotope-enabled hydro-balance model was developed to assess how increases in rainfall modulate δ18O and 87Sr/86Sr variability. Considering a terminal Lake Chew Bahir scenario, humid conditions resulted in higher lake δ18O (∼+14‰) due to increased evaporation and longer water residence times. At the same time 87Sr/86Sr decreased from 0.7064 to 0.7061 due to an increased riverine Sr flux characterised by lower, unradiogenic 87Sr/86Sr ratios. In a modelling scenario where Lake Chew Bahir became a flow-through system with interconnectivity between lakes Abaya, Chamo, Chew Bahir and Turkana, higher lake δ18O (∼+12‰) relative to present was found, but δ18O was lower than in the terminal lake scenario. The lake water 87Sr/86Sr ratios (<0.7061) were also slightly lower. A moderate concomitant change in rainfall input δ18O of −1‰ in step with hydrological reorganisation resulted in the lowest lake δ18O (∼+5‰). Modelled δ18O values were similar to the δ18O range of endogenic carbonates from sedimentary cores from Lake Chew Bahir at the onset of the AHP, supporting the validity of our model, and suggesting that evaporation and the lake water residence time strongly influence lake water δ18O. However, the reported 87Sr/86Sr of fossil carbonates from Lake Chew Bahir during the AHP (0.7065–0.7060) could not be reproduced by our modelled scenarios without adjusting the surface-water-to-groundwater ratio, highlighting the potential role of groundwater as a water source in semi-arid regions. These results demonstrate the insights that can be gained from applying a process-based approach using O and Sr isotope hydro-balance modelling to aid interpretation of past hydro-balance and lake interconnectivity from lacustrine sedimentary records.

Original languageEnglish
Article number107387
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Publication statusPublished - Mar 1 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


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