Intrarift fault fabric, segmentation, and basin evolution of the Lake Malawi (Nyasa) Rift, East Africa

Christopher A. Scholz, Donna J. Shillington, Lachlan J.M. Wright, Natalie Accardo, James B. Gaherty, Patrick Chindandali

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


The Lake Malawi (Nyasa) Rift, in the East African Rift System (EARS), is an ideal modern analogue for the study of extensional tectonic systems in low strain rate settings. The seismically active rift contains the 700-m-deep Lake Malawi, one of the world's oldest and largest freshwater lakes with one of the most diverse endemic faunal assemblages on Earth. Modern and reprocessed legacy multichannel seismic-reflection data are constrained by velocity information from a wide-angle seismic experiment to evaluate variability in extension, segmentation, and timing of fault development along the 550-km-long rift zone. Fault geometries and patterns of synrift sediment fills show that the Lake Malawi Rift is composed of three asymmetric rift segments, with intervening accommodation zone morphologies controlled by the degree of overlap between segment border faults. Most extension occurs on the basin border faults, and broadly distributed extension is only observed at one accommodation zone, where no border fault overlap is observed. Structural restorations indicate a weakly extended rift system (~7 km), with diminishing values of extension and thinner rift fill from north to south, suggesting a progressively younger rift to the south. There is no evidence of diking, sill injection, or extrusives within the synrift fill of the Lake Malawi Rift, although the volcanic load of the Rungwe magmatic system north of the lake and related subsidence may explain the presence of anomalously thick synrift fill in the northernmost part of the lake. The thickest synrift depocenters (~5.5 km) are confined to narrow 10-to 20-km-wide zones adjacent to each rift segment border fault, indicating concentration of strain on border faults rather than intrarift faults. Intrarift structures control axial sediment delivery in the North and Central rift segments, focusing sediment into confined areas resulting in localized overpressure and shale diapirs. The asymmetric, basement-controlled relief was established early in rift development. When overprinted with frequent high-amplitude hydroclimate fluctuations, which are well documented for this basin, the resulting highly variable landscape and lake morphometry through time likely impacted the diverse endemic faunas that evolved within the basin. New seismic-reflection data, augmented by wide-angle seismic data and age constraints from drill core, offer the most highly resolved 3D view to date of latest Cenozoic extensional deformation in East Africa and provide a foundation for hazards analysis, resource assessments, and constraining deformation in a low strain rate, magma-poor active rift.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1293-1311
Number of pages19
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology
  • Stratigraphy


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