Vanishing central African glaciers signal climate danger

Posted on 17 March 2008    
The receding glaciers of the Stanley Group at Rwenzori, 1952 (top) and 2008 (below)
Nairobi, Kenya  – Forget the snows of Kilimanjaro – Africa is at risk of losing the central African glaciers that are the highest permanent source of water to the Nile.

A WWF and partner organization team of 27 people of eight nationalities recently returned from the Rwenzori Mountains after gathering data showing that the mountain's glaciers have shrunk by 50 per cent in the last 50 years and more than 75 per cent in the last century.

Visually, the change is obvious with the team finding the exact locations from which photographs were taken in 1952 and 1956 and taking new photographs. “I have never seen the glaciers shrink to this level in my 25 years of climbing the Rwenzori Mountains,” exclaimed one porter accompanying the team.

The Rwenzori, straddling the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), are Africa's third highest mountains and, along with Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, are the only African peaks with permanent snowpack.

The range also borders another African icon, the Virunga National Park, Africa’s first and the home to the only remaining populations of mountain gorillas. The mountains play a vital role in supplying water to the forests and about 2 million people in the area.

WWF, together with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) had organised an ambitious 10-day expedition from DRC to Uganda that criss-crossed the massif and reached the Margharita peak at 5,119m above sea level.

“The impact of melting of glaciers was felt by the team when it discovered that the route leading from DRC to Uganda used a glacier that no longer exists, forcing the team to open a new route” says Marc Languy, head of WWF’s Programme in the Great Lakes region.

“However, the impact is more severe on wildlife and the vegetation that can not adapt to the new condition fast enough. While it was comforting to find many signs of leopards, chimpanzees and other wildlife, one wonders how they will survive if changes continue at the present rate”.

The team was armed with historical data showing that the Rwenzori glaciers covered 650ha in 1906 and were down to 352ha in 1955. The team's surveys showed a current total glaciated area of 148 ha and at this rate, WWF estimates that the glaciers will completely disappear in the next 30 years.

The expedition, comprising WWF, the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation and the Uganda Wildlife Authority, undertook a number of conservation projects in the Virunga and the Rwenzori Mountains National Parks.

The Ugandan part of Rwenzori and its glaciers, high altitude lakes, bogs and rivers are soon explected to be designated as a Ramsar site (a wetland of international significance) .

“The rivers and wetlands that I saw in this amazing ecosystem were just phenomenal. But the simple fact remains–they are threatened,” says Dr. Musonda Mumba, WWF’s Freshwater Programme Coordinator for eastern Africa.

“Their ability to provide water for both nature and man is really jeopardised by the changes that are taking place. Speaking to local people it is already clear that the rainfall pattern has changed and this is having an effect on water resources,” adds Dr. Mumba.

Contacts and more details

The receding glaciers of the Stanley Group at Rwenzori, 1952 (top) and 2008 (below)
© WWF Enlarge
Virunga National Park Park guide, Murasira Oswald with mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
© WWF / Martin HARVEY Enlarge
Lac Gris Glacier, February 1956
© WWF Enlarge
Lac Gris Glacier, February 2008
© WWF Enlarge

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required