An energy-balance hydrologic model for the Lake Malawi Rift Basin, East Africa

Robert P. Lyons, Charles N. Kroll, Christopher A. Scholz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


An energy-balanced hydrologic model is used to quantitatively assess atmosphere-water budget relationships across the Lake Malawi catchment, a hydrologically-open lake within the East African Rift System. The model first simulates the historical lake-level record over the last 100. years using climate station and vegetation data as inputs. Atmospheric conditions required to sustain equilibrium water balance are then estimated at known critical lake-levels: modern (700. m maximum water depth), basin closure (696. m maximum water depth), 500. m, 350. m, 200. m, and 150. m maximum water depth. The critical low lake stages were determined from analysis of seismic-reflection and deep lake drill-core data. The model predicts modern precipitation rate to be 955. mm/yr, which is consistent with observed climate station precipitation records. The minimum lowstand observed in geophysical records is 150. m water depth (550. m below present lake-level), and occurred about 95,000. years before present. The precipitation rate required to sustain equilibrium conditions at this low lake stage is 557. mm/yr, assuming modern Lake Malawi temperature and vegetation, and 374. mm/yr using modern temperature and vegetation data from the Little Karoo Basin, an analogue for the Malawi paleo-environment during severe arid intervals that resulted in major lake lowstands. The latter result is consistent with the range of precipitation measured from the Little Karoo Basin (100 to 500. mm/yr), and from interpretations of drill-core data sets (Cohen et al., 2007). The time required to drop lake-level from its modern maximum to the most severe low lake stage determined from paleoclimate data sets (from 700. m to 150. m maximum water depth) is less than 2500. years, even when accounting for additional water volume loss stored as groundwater. A lake-level fall of this magnitude reduces the lake surface area by 94% and reduces the total lake volume by 99%.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)83-97
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal and Planetary Change
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jan 2011

Bibliographical note

Copyright 2011 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Hydrologic modeling
  • Lake Malawi
  • Lake-level
  • Paleoclimate


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