Climate and vegetation influence weathering rates and processes; however, evaluating the effects of each and feedbacks between systems, has yet to be accomplished for many types of landscapes. A detailed understanding of how these processes interact to shape landscapes is particularly crucial for reconciling future scenarios of changing climate, where profound alterations to both the biosphere and geosphere are anticipated. In the tropics, ecosystem services, such as soil and water quality, are linked to both vegetation and weathering processes that form a strong control on natural resources that are the foundation of many communities’ daily subsistence. This understanding is further complicated by intensifying land-use within tropical watersheds, which decouples vegetation change from climate; it is yet unclear what the direct effects of vegetation change may be on erosion and weathering when operating independent of climate. Long term observational records tracking changes to the critical zone do not exist in tropical Africa, however, sedimentary paleo-records from lakes are often of sufficient length and resolution to record the impact of bioclimatic variability on surface processes. Here, we use a novel approach combining long (60ka) and intermediate-length (400yrs) lake sediment records along with historical repeat photography from Lake Tanganyika (Tanzania) to document changes and relationships among climate, vegetation, and weathering at multiple scales. These records illustrate that glacial-interglacial climate change did not significantly alter weathering intensity. Instead, we observe chemical and physical weathering responses only when the vegetation becomes more open beginning at the transition to the Holocene. Also, the largest change in chemical weathering intensity occurs only within the last ∼3ka. This is consistent with a major reorganization of vegetation and is directly attributable to Iron Age human activity, rather than climate. Furthermore, anthropogenic landscape alteration as early as ∼2.5ka, in addition to well-documented comparisons of historical land-use, suggest widespread responses of both chemical weathering intensity and enhanced soil erosion to human activity. This shows that changes in vegetation structure induced by anthropogenic activity, decoupled from climate change, generate a disproportionately large weathering response.

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Published in Quaternary Science Advances, v. 3.

© 2021 The Author(s)

This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

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Support for repeat photography, coring, and C14 analyses of the KH-3 and KH-4 cores and repeat photography/analysis was provided by NSF (ATM-02239020 and DBI-0353765, the Nyanza Project). Support for the coring, C14/Pb210 dating and palynology of the LT-98 cores was provided by the “Lake Tanganyika Biodiversity Project”. Analysis was supported by Belmont Forum (NSF ICER-1929563). Geoscientists Without Borders provided funding to collect additional photographs in 2017.

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All sedimentological/mineralogical data presented in this paper will be submitted to the Pangeae Database at time of publication. All pollen data will be submitted to the Neotoma Paleoecological Database and African Pollen Database at the time of publication.