Microfossils unravel climate history of tropical Africa

Scientists from the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research obtained for the first time a detailed temperature record for tropical central Africa over the past 25,000 years. They did this in cooperation with a German colleague from the University of Bremen, The scientists developed an entirely new method to reconstruct the history of land temperatures based on the molecular fossils of soil bacteria. They applied the method to a marine sediment core taken in the outflow of the Congo River. This core contained eroded land material and microfossils from marine algae. The results show that the land environment of tropical Africa was cooled more than the adjacent Atlantic Ocean during the last ice-age. This large temperature difference between land and ocean surface resulted in drier conditions compared to the current situation, which favours the growth of a lush rainforest. These findings provide further insight in natural variations in climate and the possible consequences of a warming earth on precipitation in central Africa. The results will be published in this week's issue of 'Science'.

One of the techniques currently used to estimate past sea surface temperatures, is based on organic molecules from algae growing in the surface layer of the Ocean. These organisms adapt the molecular composition of their cell membranes to ambient temperature to maintain constant physiological properties. When such molecules sink to the sea floor and are buried in sediments where oxygen does not penetrate, they can be preserved for thousands of years. The ratios between the different molecules from the algal cell membrane can be used to approximate the past temperature of the sea surface. These techniques are therefore called 'proxies'.

New method to measure soil temperatures

Reconstructing continental temperature history is more difficult than for the oceans, because soils on the continent do not form a continuous archive but are often

Contact: Dr. Jan Boon
Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

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