Fabled equatorial icecaps to disappear

Fabled equatorial icecaps will disappear within two decades because of global warming, a study led by UCL (University College London) has found.

Reporting online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the first survey in a decade of glaciers in the Rwenzori Mountains, East Africa, has found that an increase in air temperature over the last four decades has contributed to a substantial reduction in glacial cover.

The Rwenzori Mountains – also known as the 'Mountains of the Moon' – straddle the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Uganda. They are home to one of four remaining tropical ice fields outside of the Andes and are renowned for their spectacular and rare Afroalpine flora and fauna. The mountains' legendary status was established during the 2nd century when the Greek geographer Ptolemy made the seemingly preposterous but ultimately accurate proclamation that the River Nile was supplied by snow-capped mountains at the equator in Africa: "The Mountains of the Moon whose snows feed the lakes, sources of the Nile".

The glaciers were first surveyed a century ago when glacial cover over the entire range was estimated to be 6.5 square kilometres. Recent field surveys and satellite mapping of glaciers conducted by UCL with researchers from Makerere University, Uganda and the Ugandan Water Resources Management Department show that some glaciers are receding tens of metres each year and that the area covered by glaciers halved between 1987 and 2003.

The team found that since the 1960s there are clear trends toward increased air temperature around the Rwenzori Mountains without significant changes in precipitation. With less than one square kilometre of glacier ice remaining, glaciers are expected to disappear within the next twenty years if present trends continue.

Dr Richard Taylor, of the UCL Department of Geography who led the study, says:

"Recession of these tropical glaciers sends an unambiguous message of a changing climate in this region of the tropics. Considerable scientific debate exists, however, as to whether changes in temperature or precipitation are responsible for the shrinking of glaciers in the East African Highlands that also include Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya."

A key focus of the UCL led research is the impact of climate change on water resources in Africa. Their on-going work highlights that glacial recession in Rwenzori Mountains is not expected to have a significant effect on alpine river flow due to the small size of the remaining glaciers. However, it remains unclear how the projected loss of the glaciers will affect tourism and the traditional belief systems of the local BaKonzo people. Nzururu, the local word for snow and ice, is the father of the spirits who are responsible for human life, its continuity and its welfare.

"Considering the continent's negligible contribution to global greenhouse-gas emissions, it is a terrible irony that Africa, according to current predictions, will be most affected by climate change," added Dr Taylor.

"Furthermore, the rise in air temperature is consistent with other regional studies that show how dramatic increases in malaria in the East African Highlands may arise, in part, from warmer temperatures as mosquitoes are able to colonise previously inhospitable highland areas."

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The research was funded by The Royal Geographical Society and The Royal Society.

Notes to editors

'Recent glacial recession in the Rwenzori Mountains of East Africa due to rising air temperature' is published in the 17/05/06 edition of Geophysical Research Letters. The authors are: Richard Taylor (a), lucinda mileham (a), callist tindimugaya (b), abushen majugu (c), andrew muwanga (d) and bob nakileza (e)

(a) Department of Geography, University College London, Gower Street, London, United Kingdom WC1E 6BT

(b) Water Resources Management Department, Directorate of Water Development, P.O. Box 19, Entebbe, Uganda

(c) Meteorology Department, P.O. Box 7025, Kampala, Uganda

(d) Department of Geology, Makerere University, P.O. Box 7504, Kampala, Uganda

(e) Department of Geography, Makerere University, P.O. Box 7504, Kampala, Uganda

For further information, please contact:

Judith H Moore
UCL Media Relations
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7679 7678
Mobile: +44 (0)77333 075 96
Out-of-hours: +44 (0)7917 271 364
Email: judith.moore@ucl.ac.uk

Dr Richard Taylor
UCL Department of Geography
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7679 0591
Email: r.taylor@geog.ucl.ac.uk

About UCL
Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. In the government's most recent Research Assessment Exercise, 59 UCL departments achieved top ratings of 5* and 5, indicating research quality of international excellence.

UCL is the fourth-ranked UK university in the 2005 league table of the top 500 world universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. UCL alumni include Mahatma Gandhi (Laws 1889, Indian political and spiritual leader); Jonathan Dimbleby (Philosophy 1969, writer and television presenter); Junichiro Koizumi (Economics 1969, Prime Minister of Japan); Lord Woolf (Laws 1954, former Lord Chief Justice of England & Wales); Alexander Graham Bell (Phonetics 1860s, inventor of the telephone); and members of the band Coldplay.


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