Articles | Volume 12, issue 5
Clim. Past, 12, 1243–1262, 2016
Clim. Past, 12, 1243–1262, 2016

Research article 27 May 2016

Research article | 27 May 2016

Interannual and (multi-)decadal variability in the sedimentary BIT index of Lake Challa, East Africa, over the past 2200 years: assessment of the precipitation proxy

Laura K. Buckles1, Dirk Verschuren2, Johan W. H. Weijers1,a, Christine Cocquyt3, Maarten Blaauw4, and Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté1,5 Laura K. Buckles et al.
  • 1University of Utrecht, Faculty of Geosciences, P.O. Box 80.021, 3508 TA Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • 2Limnology Unit, Department of Biology, Ghent University, K. L. Ledeganckstraat 35, 9000 Gent, Belgium
  • 3Botanic Garden Meise, Nieuwelaan 38, 1860 Meise, Belgium
  • 4School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University Belfast, Elmwood Avenue, Belfast BT7 1NN, UK
  • 5NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, Department of Marine Microbiology and Biogeochemistry, and Utrecht University, P.O. Box 59, 1790 AB Den Burg, Texel, the Netherlands
  • apresent address: Shell Global Solutions International B.V., Kessler Park 1, 2288 GS Rijswijk, the Netherlands

Abstract. The branched vs. isoprenoid tetraether (BIT) index is based on the relative abundance of branched tetraether lipids (brGDGTs) and the isoprenoidal GDGT crenarchaeol. In Lake Challa sediments the BIT index has been applied as a proxy for local monsoon precipitation on the assumption that the primary source of brGDGTs is soil washed in from the lake's catchment. Since then, microbial production within the water column has been identified as the primary source of brGDGTs in Lake Challa sediments, meaning that either an alternative mechanism links BIT index variation with rainfall or that the proxy's application must be reconsidered. We investigated GDGT concentrations and BIT index variation in Lake Challa sediments at a decadal resolution over the past 2200 years, in combination with GDGT time-series data from 45 monthly sediment-trap samples and a chronosequence of profundal surface sediments.

Our 2200-year geochemical record reveals high-frequency variability in GDGT concentrations, and therefore in the BIT index, superimposed on distinct lower-frequency fluctuations at multi-decadal to century timescales. These changes in BIT index are correlated with changes in the concentration of crenarchaeol but not with those of the brGDGTs. A clue for understanding the indirect link between rainfall and crenarchaeol concentration (and thus thaumarchaeotal abundance) was provided by the observation that surface sediments collected in January 2010 show a distinct shift in GDGT composition relative to sediments collected in August 2007. This shift is associated with increased bulk flux of settling mineral particles with high Ti / Al ratios during March–April 2008, reflecting an event of unusually high detrital input to Lake Challa concurrent with intense precipitation at the onset of the principal rain season that year. Although brGDGT distributions in the settling material are initially unaffected, this soil-erosion event is succeeded by a massive dry-season diatom bloom in July–September 2008 and a concurrent increase in the flux of GDGT-0. Complete absence of crenarchaeol in settling particles during the austral summer following this bloom indicates that no Thaumarchaeota bloom developed at that time. We suggest that increased nutrient availability, derived from the eroded soil washed into the lake, caused the massive bloom of diatoms and that the higher concentrations of ammonium (formed from breakdown of this algal matter) resulted in a replacement of nitrifying Thaumarchaeota, which in typical years prosper during the austral summer, by nitrifying bacteria. The decomposing dead diatoms passing through the suboxic zone of the water column probably also formed a substrate for GDGT-0-producing archaea. Hence, through a cascade of events, intensive rainfall affects thaumarchaeotal abundance, resulting in high BIT index values.

Decade-scale BIT index fluctuations in Lake Challa sediments exactly match the timing of three known episodes of prolonged regional drought within the past 250 years. Additionally, the principal trends of inferred rainfall variability over the past two millennia are consistent with the hydroclimatic history of equatorial East Africa, as has been documented from other (but less well dated) regional lake records. We therefore propose that variation in GDGT production originating from the episodic recurrence of strong soil-erosion events, when integrated over (multi-)decadal and longer timescales, generates a stable positive relationship between the sedimentary BIT index and monsoon rainfall at Lake Challa. Application of this paleoprecipitation proxy at other sites requires ascertaining the local processes which affect the productivity of crenarchaeol by Thaumarchaeota and brGDGTs.

Short summary
This paper discusses the underlying mechanisms of a method that uses specific membrane lipids present in the sediments of an African tropical lake to determine past changes in rainfall. With this method, past dry periods in the last 25 000 years can be assessed.