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A Glacial Warning

Glaciers in Uganda, East Africa are receding at an alarming rate due to global warming.

by Laura Goodall

Photo courtesy of Richard Taylor

Glacial melting: this photo shows the changes that have occurred in glaciers in the Rwenzori Mountains between 2003 and 2005.

Dubbed 'the Mountains of the Moon', the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, East Africa are well-known for their breathtaking glaciers. It is rare to find snow and ice on the equator, so trekkers often follow rugged and steep routes and climb nearly 5000 metres above sea level, just to catch a glimpse of the icy landscape.

But these glaciers may not be around for much longer. Due to global warming, they are shrinking much faster than expected. Dr. Richard Taylor, a geographer at University College London who monitors the Rwenzori glaciers, says that when he stood at the foot of Speke glacier in 2005 and measured it, he was shocked to discover that it could soon be gone. "We were judging the distance that it had retreated in ten years, and it was a lot. That's when we realised things were dramatic," he recalls. "We had tracked that it had moved 311 metres, so we're looking at around 30 metres a year."

Taylor and his colleagues have calculated that the Rwenzori glaciers are likely to disappear within two decades, since less than 1000 square metres of glacier ice currently remains. And Taylor thinks that the damage to the glaciers is already too advanced to halt. "Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, we'd still have a lag-time of increasing air temperature over the next few decades," he explains. "I don't think that there is any real hope that we can ever do anything more for these glaciers, but we now need to recognise that we're changing the climate."

Endangered Vegetation

The region just beneath the glaciers, called the Afroalpine vegetation zone, has rare plants that only grow at specific elevations in East African highlands. These plants rely on glacial river water and there were initial concerns that there wouldn't be enough water. But Taylor and his colleagues found that the glaciers are already so small that their disappearance will barely affect the flow of alpine rivers.

However, the receding glaciers certainly act as a warning for the more direct consequences of global warming. As temperatures increase, plants that normally grow in lower montain zones will be able to grow at higher altitudes and will compete for limited space with existing plants. "Luckily vegetation responds pretty slowly," Taylor says. "The glaciers are much more sensitive than vegetation to changes in air temperature."

The Cause

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is the major contributor to global warming since it creates a greenhouse effect where the sun's heat cannot escape through the atmosphere. Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas increase CO2 levels in the atmosphere and most scientists now agree that they are the prime culprits for climate change.

Ironically, indigenous mountain communities like the BaKonzo people, who produce virtually no greenhouse gases, are likely to be the most affected by glacial loss. The glaciers give the BaKonzo their cultural identity, protect them from tropical diseases, storms and hostile tribes, and provide medicinal plants. Their tourism economy also depends on the glaciers, and they will suffer drastically when the glaciers disappear, since they will no longer be there for mountaineers and trekkers to admire.

Perhaps the damage to the Rwenzori glaciers cannot be reversed, but many environmentalists are urging people to take action before further damage is done. At sites like http://www.carbonfootprint.com, people can calculate their carbon footprint - a measure of how much carbon dioxide a person produces - and then hopefully think of ways to reduce their environmental impact.

There are many ways to reduce carbon emissions. Using public transportation rather than driving a car is one positive step as is recycling, switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs, avoiding unnecessary packaging and buying local food rather than produce shipped on planes from countries thousands of miles away. Planting trees, switching to renewable energy sources for electricity and investing in Sustainable Technology Development are also suggestions for offsetting one's carbon footprint.

Even the most swanky corporations are now going green gracefully. In 2008, Porsche is releasing the Cayenne in the U.S.A., which will probably be one of the most desirable hybrid SUVs on the market. Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, announced in September that the Virgin Group will invest up to $400 million to develop an environmentally-friendly fuel.

By responding quickly to the urgent need to reduce carbon dioxide levels, people may be able to prevent more drastic and dire effects from happening in 50 years' time. It could take some innovative solutions, but the future is in our hands, or perhaps more appropriately, in our footprints.

For more information:

BBC - Fabled ice field 'set to vanish'

The Guardian - Return to the Mountains of the Moon

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First Science 2014