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Snowy Mountaintops in Africa to Disappear

Heat and Hype: The Truth about the Scorching S

The picturesque snowy tops of equatorial mountains in Africa might disappear within two decades as air temperatures rise, scientists announced today.

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 renowned for their spectacular, and rare, plant and animal life. The mountains are home to one of the four remaining tropical ice fields outside of the Andes and are a popular tourist attraction.

The glaciers feed lakes that eventually flow into the Nile.

The glaciers were first surveyed a century ago when glacial cover over the entire range was estimated to be 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers). But recent field surveys and satellite mapping, conducted by the University College London, Uganda's Makerere University, and the Ugandan Water Resources Management Department, show that some glaciers are receding tens of yards each year.

Cut in half

The glacier area was cut in half from 1987 to 2003, and with just half a square mile (about one square kilometer) of glacier ice remaining. The researchers expect these glaciers to disappear within the next 20 years.

"Recession of these tropical glaciers sends an unambiguous message of a changing climate in this region of the tropics," said study leader Richard Taylor of the University College London. "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 [in Tanzania] and Mount Kenya."

The researchers also determined that since the 1960s, clear trends toward increased air temperature without significant changes in precipitation exist in the Rwenzori Mountains.

Hard hit

The glacial loss is a painfully ironic reminder that, according to recent climate projections, Africa will be the continent hit hardest by global warming, despite its negligible contributions to greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels.

Due to the small size of the remaining glaciers, glacial recession in the Rwenzori Mountains is not expected to affect alpine river flow, the scientists said. It remains unclear, however, how the projections will affect tourism and local traditional belief systems that are based upon the snow and ice, known locally as "Nzururu."

"Furthermore," Taylor said, "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 colonize previously inhospitable highland areas."

The results are published in the May 17 issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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Bjorn Carey is the science information officer at Stanford University. He has written and edited for various news outlets, including Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries, and Popular Science. When it comes to reporting on and explaining wacky science and weird news, Bjorn is your guy. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his beautiful son and wife.