30 Nov 2022
30 Nov 2022
Status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal BG.

Tectonic controls on the ecosystem of the Mara River Basin, East Africa, from geomorphological and spectral indices analysis

Alina Lucia Ludat and Simon Kübler Alina Lucia Ludat and Simon Kübler
  • Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Munich, 80333, Germany

Abstract. Tectonic activity impacts the environment, therefore, identifying the influence of active faulting on environmental factors, such as soil development and vegetation growth patterns, is valuable in better understanding ecosystem functions. Here, we illustrate how tectonic activity and lithology of bedrock influence temporal and spatial patterns of vegetation and soil parameters in a fault-controlled river basin.

The Mara River Basin lies in a region of previously unrecognised active normal faulting, dominated by the Utimbara and Isuria faults, resulting in areas of relative uplift, subsidence and tilting. Faulting leads to spatially variable erosion and soil formation rates as well as disruption and modification of drainage systems. On a small scale, steep escarpments cast shade and provide shelter. All of these factors might be expected to exert controls on ecosystem dynamics on a range of lengths and timescales. Here, we investigate tectonic controls on ecological processes in the Mara River Basin using TanDEM-X and Sentinel-2 data. We use high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) to map the Utimbara and Isuria faults and to measure the height of the escarpments (up to 400 m) along the length of the faults. Total fault offset can be estimated by correlating Neogene phonolite lavas (thought to be 3.5–4.5 Ma old) on either side of the faults. If the age is correct, slip rates can be estimated to be on the order of 0.1mm yr-1. Analysis of DEMs also reveals the presence of recent earthquake scarps in the hanging wall sediments of the main faults and extensive alluvial fan formation on the hanging wall. Low mountain front sinuosity values and the presence of steep escarpments also suggest recent activity. Drainage is displaced across the fault traces, and, in one area, it is possible to map the lateral channel migration of the Mara River due to hanging wall tilting.

We used a 5-year Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) time-series, Clay Mineral Ratio (CMR) and Moisture Stress Index (MSI) to investigate spatiotemporal vegetation patterns and soil formation. Whilst lithology does exert some control, as expected, we observed that the downthrown hanging wall of the faults, especially directly adjacent to the escarpment, is consistently associated with a higher degree of vegetation, wetland formation and clay distribution. Analysis of spectral indices shows that the overall spatial pattern of vegetation cover is seasonally low in the flat plains and perennially high in the vicinity of more complex, tectonically influenced structures. The NDVI highlights several locations with permanently healthy vegetation along the escarpment which extend downslope for several kilometres. Our study shows that in the Mara River Basin, active normal faulting is an important stabiliser of vegetation growth patterns, likely caused by favourable hydrological and pedological conditions along the escarpments; tectonic activity has a direct beneficial influence on ecological processes in this climatically sensitive region.

Alina Lucia Ludat and Simon Kübler

Status: open (until 17 Feb 2023)

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Alina Lucia Ludat and Simon Kübler

Alina Lucia Ludat and Simon Kübler


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Short summary
Satellite-based analysis illustrates the impact of geological processes on the functionality and stability of the ecosystem in the Mara River Basin (Kenya/Tanzania). Newly detected fault activity influences the course of river networks and modifies erosion-deposition patterns, and tectonic surface features and variations in rock chemistry lead to localized enhancement of clay and soil moisture values and seasonally stabilised vegetation growth patterns in this climatically vulnerable region.