[KAMPALA] Glaciers in a fabled African mountain range are disappearing because of climate change, say Ugandan and UK scientists who conducted the first survey of the ice fields for ten years.
The study, published yesterday (17 May) in Geophysical Research Letters, says some glaciers in the Rwenzori Mountains are receding by ten metres a year. Their total area halved between 1987 and 2003.
The mountain range straddles the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, and is one of only four tropical ice fields outside of the Andes of South America.
Co-author Abushen Majugu of Uganda's Meteorology Department says temperatures in the region have been rising steadily for more than a decade, causing the glaciers to melt.
Project leader Richard Taylor of University College London, United Kingdom adds there is no evidence to support an alternative explanation — a reduction in rainfall.
"There are reports of reduced precipitation in Uganda as a result of deforestation," he told SciDev.Net. "Some scientific research supports this but evidence from meteorological stations in western Uganda does not indicate any significant decline in annual precipitation."
The study suggests that if current trends continue, the glaciers will disappear completely within two decades.
"While it is true that glaciers are melting away, temperature fluctuations mean nobody can predict exactly when the ice-caps will be totally wiped out," says Majugu. He says a 20-year timeframe could be too restrictive.
The mountain range supplies water to many of the region's rivers, but according to Taylor, the glaciers are too small for their loss to have any significant effect on river flow.
But he says that in the long-term tourism to the Rwenzori Mountains could be affected by the loss of the glaciers.
The mountains are also known as the Mountains of the Moon — a name that a second-century Greek merchant reported local people had used to describe the white peaks.
His description led the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy to predict that the source of the River Nile would one day be found to be: "The mountains of the moon, whose snows feed the lakes, the sources of the Nile."