Isotopic evidence for Plio-Pleistocene environmental change at Gona, Ethiopia

Naomi E. Levin, Jay Quade, Scott W. Simpson, Sileshi Semaw, Michael Rogers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

132 Scopus citations


A 4.5 Ma record of fluvial and lacustrine deposits is well exposed at Gona, in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia. We use isotopic values of pedogenic carbonate and fossil teeth to reconstruct Plio-Pleistocene environmental change at Gona. An increase in δ13C values of pedogenic carbonates since 4.5 Ma points to a shift from woodlands to grassy woodlands in the early Pliocene, -10.4 to -3.9‰ (VPDB), to more open but still mixed environments in the late Pleistocene, -3.0 to -1.4‰ (VPDB). This pattern is also seen in isotopic records elsewhere in East Africa. However, at 1.5 Ma the higher proportion of C4 grasses at Gona is largely a result of a local facies shift to more water-limited environments. The wide range of δ13C values of pedogenic carbonate within single stratigraphic levels indicates a mosaic of vegetation for all time intervals at Gona that depends on depositional environment. Elements of this mosaic are reflected in δ13C values of both modern plants and soil organic matter and Plio-Pleistocene soil carbonate, indicating higher amounts of C4 grasses with greater distance from a river channel in both the modern and ancient Awash River systems. δ18O values of pedogenic carbonates increase up-section from -11.9‰ in the early Pliocene to -6.4‰ (VPDB) in the late Pleistocene. The wide range of δ18O values in paleovertisol carbonates from all stratigraphic levels probably reflects short-term climate changes and periods of strong evaporation throughout the record. Based on the comparison between δ18O values of Plio-Pleistocene pedogenic carbonates and modern waters, we estimate that there has been a 6.5‰ increase in mean annual δ18O values of meteoric water since 4.5 Ma. δ18O values of pedogenic carbonate from other East African records indicate a similar shift. Increasing aridity and fluctuations in the timing and source of rainfall are likely responsible for the changes in δ18O values of East African pedogenic carbonates through the Plio-Pleistocene.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)93-110
Number of pages18
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Feb 28 2004


  • East Africa
  • Ethiopia
  • Isotopes
  • Paleoclimate
  • Paleosols
  • Plio-Pleistocene

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science

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