Time is running out for Uganda’s endangered glaciers

by The Insights

Leaving the cultivated hills of the village, we crossed the park boundary and quickly entered the rainforest, where jewel-like flowers appeared beneath giant ferns and monkeys materialized and disappeared as mist sifted through the hardwoods. at buttresses. We hiked through a bamboo forest, climbing 12,800 feet (3,900 meters), where we entered otherworldly Afro-Alpine moorland, which contains endemic, endangered and rare species.

For two days we jumped from grassy tussocks to slippery tree roots, through bogs of spongy moss and silent streams. Lichen beards floated from the branches of the giant heathers. Rwenzori’s red duikers, an endangered antelope subspecies, stared at dense thickets of papery silver everlasting.

The plants, uniquely adapted to their habitat, became stranger as we ascended. Giant ragworts dotted the bottom of the valleys. Their pointed green pompoms make them look like palm trees, but their shaggy coat of dead leaves protected them from the cold.

As the planet heats up, plants and animals are moving up the slopes in the Rwenzoris, as elsewhere, in search of cooler temperatures. But there is only so far they can go. Eventually, “they’ll just come down from the top of the mountain,” said Penn State researcher Sarah Ivory.

“You now find rock hyrax prints on the glaciers,” Bwambale said as we walked. “Same for duikers.”

On the fifth day, we noticed some changes on our side. Holding up one of Sella’s photos to compare it to today’s landscape, we discovered that a glacier-fed pond nestled in the valley between Mount Baker and Mount Stanley had shrunk to almost nothing.

The three highest points in Africa have all lost dramatic amounts of ice over the past century, reports a 2019 paper published in Geosciences. On Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest point in Africa, the ice has shrunk 90% since it was first surveyed in 1912, to less than 1 square mile. The glaciers of Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest peak, measure less than a tenth of a square mile. The much less studied Rwenzoris glaciers covered about 2.5 square miles in 1906; in 2003 they covered less than 1 square mile. Today they are even smaller.

While glaciers are retreating everywhere, the causes are different from place to place. In the Rwenzoris, where the glaciers sit at a relatively low elevation of 14,400 feet (4,400 meters), warming air is the problem. The mountains, whose name means “rainmaker” in the local language, receive 6 to 10 feet of precipitation a year, so the glaciers aren’t running out of water – they’re just melting faster than rain can freeze. and replace the melted ice. However, on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, where ice occurs at higher elevations, rainfall has decreased. Here, the ice evaporates in the dry air.

Whatever the cause, high-altitude ice is disappearing everywhere – a trend that will continue as global warming accelerates the rate of change in mountain ecosystems, cryospheric systems, hydrological regimes and biodiversity, according to the Mountain Research Initiative.

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