Shifting westerlies and precipitation patterns during the Late Pleistocene in southern Africa determined using glacier reconstruction and mass balance modelling

S. C. Mills, S. W. Grab, B. R. Rea, S. J. Carr, A. Farrow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Citations (Scopus)


South Africa experiences a range of different climatic regimes and is thus an ideal region to investigate Late Pleistocene environmental and climate change. However, detailed quantifiable palaeoclimate data are sparse in the region. In particular, reliable palaeoclimatic data are essential to resolve ongoing controversies regarding temperature depression and moisture availability during glacial periods in the sub-continent. Small glaciers close to the glaciation threshold are highly sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation and are therefore ideal indicators of past climatic conditions during their existence. This paper derives some of the first quantitative data on Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) palaeoprecipitation in southern Africa, based on glacier reconstruction and mass balance modelling for the Lesotho Highlands.The reconstruction of former glaciers and their dynamics enables the determination of glacier viability under specific climatic envelopes. Glacier reconstructions at five sites in the Lesotho Highlands yield palaeoglaciers with Equilibrium Line Altitudes (ELAs) ranging from 3095 to 3298 m a.s.l., and reconstructed steady-state mass balance and flow dynamics are comparable with modern analogues. Topoclimatic factors are investigated, with temperature-radiation-index modelling indicating that topographic shading was an important factor determining the existence of small glaciers in this region. The occurrence of glaciation in the Drakensberg during the LGM suggests a potential increase in precipitation and change in its seasonality. Such trends are likely associated with an increased frequency of westerly wave (cold front) disturbances due to the northward shift of pressure belts, which would also increase precipitation as snow at higher altitudes. The application of a high resolution climate model (HadAM3h) to test this, displays a change in the seasonal timing of precipitation during the Last Glacial cycle, with a decrease in precipitation evident during the summer months. This is likely to have had important implications for the mass balance and survival of small niche glaciers in the region, with more precipitation falling during the spring - winter - autumn months as snow.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)145-159
Number of pages15
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 8 Nov 2012


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