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In the Mountains of the Moon, a trek to Africa’s last glaciers

By Tom Knudson - posted Tuesday, 16 February 2010


The shrinking ice cap atop Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s most famous glacier. But the continent harbours other pockets of ice, most notably in the Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda. And as temperatures rise, the Rwenzori’s tropical glaciers - located as high as 16,500 feet - are fast disappearing.

I am hiking through a moss-draped forest more than 10,000 feet above sea level in the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda, not far from the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The trail ahead is steep as a ladder and slippery with mud, and every few minutes my guide and I stop to rest.

Most people who come to this part of Africa do so for its wildlife, especially the endangered mountain gorilla. I have made the journey for another reason. I am looking for a glacier.

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In the popular imagination, glaciers and Africa intersect at one location: Mt. Kilimanjaro, the iconic dormant volcano that rises from the grasslands of Tanzania and whose shrinking snowcap has become a symbol of climate change.

But there are glaciers in steamy Uganda, too, hidden in the eaves of jagged 16,000-foot peaks that are lost in the clouds most of the year. And these glaciers have a climate change story to tell, too - one that scientific research suggests better reflects the impact of global warming than the fading snows of Kilimanjaro.

But their story is also nearing its close. In just two decades, scientists expect the Rwenzori glaciers - as well as Africa’s few other remaining ice fields - to be gone. Kilimanjaro has already lost 84 percent of its ice since 1912, and what’s left is not expected to last more than a couple of decades. The Lewis glacier on Mount Kenya is also expected to wink out soon.

That prognosis comes as no surprise to my guide, a local Bakonjo tribesman named Baluku Josephat, who has guided climbers through the Rwenzori range since 1982 and has seen the consequences of global warming firsthand.

“If you go to Mount Baker,” he says, referring to a massive, ship-like peak in the centre of the range where glaciers have already melted, “you can now go without crampons. It was not that way in the past. Now people just walk over rocks.”

And not all of the impacts are playing out in the snow zone. Two years ago, Josephat spotted something in a brushy thicket at 10,900 feet that startled him - an upwardly mobile chameleon.

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“Chameleons are supposed to be at lower elevations. Now they are moving up and up,” he said, echoing an observation scientists have made about animals and plants in other mountain ranges worldwide. “When I found that chameleon, I was puzzled. I thought, ‘My God, what is happening?’”

With its snow-capped peaks looming over the tropics, the Rwenzori are a geographical marvel that have haunted the Western imagination for centuries. As early as 500BC the Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote about “Egypt nurtured by the snows.” In 150AD, Claudius Ptolemy, the most distinguished geographer of his time, produced a celebrated early map of Africa that fanned speculation about a snowy source of the Nile. Without ever setting foot in Africa, he sketched an icy range rising from the heart of the continent that he called Lunae Montes - the Mountains of the Moon - a name widely used for the Rwenzori today.

But it wasn’t until 1888 that the American explorer Henry Stanley proved Ptolemy correct. Looking up from a camp in the Congo, he spotted what he first thought was a silver cloud in the shape of a mountain.

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First published in Yale Environment 360 on February 4, 2010.



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About the Author

Tom Knudson writes about natural resources and the environment for the Sacramento Bee. Over the years, his reporting has been singled out for numerous journalistic honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes and a Reuters-I.U.C.N. Global Environmental Media Award. Support for his reporting on this story was underwritten by a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation in Washington D.C.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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