Lake Retreat: African river valley once hosted big lake

The valley of the White Nile, one of two main tributaries of Africa’s longest river, may long ago have held a shallow lake that sprawled 70 kilometers across and stretched more than 500 km along the river.

Satellite images clearly show a continuous string of arc-shaped features that extends about 280 km southward from Esh Shawal, Sudan, along the eastern margin of the White Nile valley. Previous ground surveys found that the elevations of those landforms vary by no more than 2 meters, says Martin A.J. Williams, a geographer at Australia’s University of Adelaide. West of these contours, the terrain slopes gently toward the river, dropping about 15 centimeters across each westward kilometer. East of the features, the ground rises at a steeper gradient of 3 meters per kilometer.

The consistent level of the features, like that of a gargantuan bathtub ring, marks the wave-scoured shoreline of an ancient lake, says Williams. North of Esh Shawal, traces of the lake’s eastern shoreline become vague, because sediments dumped there by the Blue Nile have covered the area. However, signs of erosion along the opposite shore can be found more than 200 km north of the town. Neither the satellite images nor previous surveys provide any clue about where the ancient lake’s southern shore may have been located. Williams and his colleagues describe their findings in the November Geology.

Because the southeastern shoreline is well defined, the arc-shaped features probably took a long time to form, says Michael R. Talbot, a geologist at the University of Bergen in Norway. The apparent absence of multiple shorelines at various elevations along the river valley indicates the lake was a permanent and stable feature, not one that rose and fell with the seasons and reached different levels each year.

The White Nile’s ancient lake couldn’t exist today because the river doesn’t carry enough water to keep up with evaporation over a lake-size area. At some sites in the region, reservoirs can lose as much as 1 cm of water per day, says Williams.

Analyses of clay-rich sediments excavated from a trench near Esh Shawal suggest that layers now 5 m below ground level were deposited on the lake bottom more than 250,000 years ago. Williams and his colleagues suggest that the lake formed and existed between 420,000 and 360,000 years ago, during a wetter-than-normal period between ice ages.


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