UCL Department of Geography


Speke Glacier bounded by steep scarps in the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda (c)Richard Taylor


Climate change in the Rwenzori Mountains of East Africa

Policy Brief: Climate change in the Rwenzori Mountains

Research Outcomes

Final Reports to the Royal Geographical Society

Project Rationale & Objectives

On the Rwenzori Mountains, which straddle the border between the Republic of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, alpine wetlands, lakes and streams are supplied, in part, by snowfields that occur primarily on three mountains, Mount Stanley, Mount Speke and Mount Baker (Figure 1). These aquatic environments, headwaters of the Nile, are home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic and a few of which are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. Spectacular vascular plants include Giant Heather (Erica spp.), Giant Lobelia (Lobelia wollastonii) and Tree Senecio (Dendrosenecio adnivalis). Indigenous fauna include small mammals (e.g., Rwenzori Otter-shrew), fish (Varicurhinus rwenzori) and large mammals such as the Rwenzori Leopard.

By 1990, glaciers on the Rwenzori Mountains had receded to about 40% of their extent recorded in 1955 (Figure 1) and less than one quarter of that measured by the Duke of Abruzzi in 1906 (Kaser and Osmaston, 2002). Apart from an expedition in 1993 (Talks, 1993), more recent assessments of glacial extent have been hindered by civil unrest in Uganda and conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (1998-1999). During the 20th century, glacial recession on the Rwenzori Mountains mirrored recession on Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (Hastenrath and Greischar, 1997) where Thompson et al. (2002) predict glaciers will disappear entirely by 2020. With continuing political stability in Uganda, an expedition to the Rwenzori Mountains was proposed with the overall aim: to assess the impact of recent climate change on alpine aquatic ecosystems of the Rwenzori Mountains.

Three scientific objectives were identified in order to meet the project's overall aim:

  1. to analyse available, environmental archives stored in lake sediment and glacial ice;
  2. to assess the magnitude of current glacial recession;
  3. to assess the impact of glacial recession on the hydrology of the Mubuku River Basin.

In addition to these scientific objectives, capacity building in Uganda in the form of training and equipment provision to research collaborators is a fundamental, practical goal of this project. Further to this, the project sought to identify, through this programme of research, key areas for future work and to contribute toward a long-term, collaborative programme of monitoring and scientific study of the Rwenzori Mountains.

Rwenzori Mountain

The Rwenzori Mountains (Figure 1) comprise an uplifted block of crystalline rocks (e.g., gneiss, amphibolite, granite and quartzite) that rose from within the western rift in the late Pliocene to divide palaeolake Obweruka and thereby create the present-day Lakes Albert and Edward (Taylor and Howard, 1998). The highest peak in the range, Margherita on Mount Stanley, has an elevation of 5108 meters above sea level. With remarkable prescience (or tremendous help from early geographers), Claudius Ptolemy wrote: "... the Mountains of the Moon, whose snows feed the lakes, sources of the Nile." (cited in Osmaston and Pasteur, 1972). Indeed, meltwaters from the Mountains of the Moon (Rwenzori Mountains) supply alpine rivers such as the Mubuku (Uganda) and Luusilubi (Democratic Republic of Congo) that, in turn, discharge into Lake Albert, a source of the White Nile, via the Semliki river or a more circuitous route that includes Lakes George and Edward. The snowcap on the Rwenzori Mountains is also at the centre of the traditional belief system of the BaKonzo who have long lived in the foothills of the Rwenzoris (Alnaes, 1998). Snow, "Nzururu", is the 'father' of the BaKonzo deity, "Kitasamba". The area now occupied by the Rwenzori Mountains above an approximate elevation of 1700 metres above sea level was gazetted as a national park in 1991. Rwenzori Mountains National Park was made a World Heritage Site in 1994.

The project features a close collaboration between Ugandan scientists and students from Makerere University and Water Resources Management Department, and their counterparts from University College London (UK) and Institut für Geographie (Austria). To develop new scientists, six students from Makerere University and University College London participated in this expedition. Overall, the team possesses expertise in key fields of hydrology, alpine glaciology, palaeolimnology, palynology, ecology, hydrogeochemistry and geomorphology. Critical logistical support was provided by the Rwenzori Mountaineering Service (guides, cooks, porters) and Uganda Wildlife Authority (project liaison, rangers). Members of the project team are listed below.

Project Team

Department of Geography, University College London (UCL)

Departments of Geography and Geology, Makerere University

  • Dr Andrew Muwanga (co-expedition leader, hydrologist, geochemist)
  • Dr Immaculate Ssemmanda (palynologist)
  • Dr Bob Nakileza (alpine geomorphologist)
  • Nelson Kisaka (student)
  • Alex Mbonimba (student)
  • Allen Ndyanabo (student)


Ministry of Water & Environment (Uganda)

  • Callist Tindimugaya (isotope geochemist, hydrologist)

Institut für Geographie, University of Innsbruck

  • Dr Andrea Fischer (glaciologist)

Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA)

  • Aggrey Rwetsiba (project liaison, Kampala)
  • Baluku Salevano (project liaison, Nyakalengiya)
  • Sinairi Koffi (ranger)
  • Michael Mugabe (ranger)

Rwenzori Mountaineering Service (RMS)

  • guides: Joel Nzwenge, Patrick Bwabu, Azalia Mawano
  • cooks: Nason Rwaburara, Erifaza Salongo
  • porters: Xavier Bonabama, George Bakluku, Lazarus Limbali, Batrumao Muthende, Monday Nzwenge, Kabugho Yodesi, Alfred Bwambale Waka-waka, Sipiriano Bwambale, Lazaro Bwambale, Zephania Kibwana, Erifaza Wakibanahi, Richard Kithamuliko, Mitusera Bakamwegha, Isaac Sibyaleghana, John Mukirania, Henry Bwambale, Baluku F. Nyoro, Masereka Muthabuli, Luka Katalikawi, Clovice Masereka, Thembo Isebbani, Josephine Muthabali, Peter Kijuma, Sunday Munyanyika, Zalimon Kule Bagenda, Amon Marayi, Asasio Katalyaburo, Azalia Syabugha, Alice Masika, Dominico Marayi, Koroneri Limbali, Geoffrey K. Bagheni, Tobius Bakamwegha, Andrew Masumbuko, Moni Marahi, Wilson Muwunza, Zaverio Mbakania, Ezera Kabukobi, Erisa Muhongya, Bruno Limbali, Naton Mbaju, Sudrak Muthabali, Joshia Matheka, Paul Bukokoli, Erinerico Bakamwegha, Stephen Kindenga, James Marayi, Jowasi Kule, Koroneri Byalemene, Sarah Basolene, Simon Muhindo, James Kathikayima, Ernest Bwambale, Paul Baluku, Musumba Walholire, Mirikiodi Kibaya, Magadalena Biira, Sereka Kathikayima, Tito Sunday, Robert Syamulsaryira, Joseph Thembo, Isaac Kule, Charles Baluku, Girison Solongo, Julius Mbusa, Robert Muhindo, Richard Mattre, Bruno Bwambale

Project advisory panel

  • Dr Henry Osmaston (Cumbria, UK), Dr. Georg Kaser (University of Innsbruck)
  • Professor Daniel Livingstone (Duke University), Professor Lonnie Thompson (Ohio State University), 
  • Mr Deo Lubega (Express Travel Group, Kampala)


  • EPSRC / Royal Geographical Society (UK)
    • 2007 Small Research Grant (Taylor)
  • Royal Geographical Society (UK)
    • 2003 Ralph Brown Award - co-winner (expedition team)
    • Student Expedition Research Grant (Panizzo, Mileham, Shackleton)
  • The Royal Society (UK)
    • Overseas Study Visit Grant (Taylor)
    • UK Study Visit Grant (Ssemmanda)
  • University of London (UK)
  • The Convocation Trust
  • Central Research Fund - Radiometric (210Pb) dating of sediment cores (Rose)
  • University College London (UK)
    • The Friends Trust
    • Department of Geography & Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences
    • Dean's Travel Fund (Mackay, Rose)
    • Student travel grants (Mileham, Panizzo, Shackleton)
  • Quaternary Research Association (UK)
    • Radiometric (210Pb) dating of sediment cores (Mackay)
    • The Earth and Space Foundation (UK)
    • Annual Earth and Space Awards (Mileham)
  • Rwenzori Beverage Company Limited (Uganda)
  • Taylor, R.G., 2012. BBC Radio One Planet (World Service). In search of Africa's ice. Taylor, R.G., 2007. BBC Radio Science in Action. Climate change and the BaKonzo.
  • "Glaciers in Africa expected to disappear" appeared in: BBC News, Nature, Science, Die Spiegel, Pravda, Washington Post, Malaysia Sun, New Kerala, USA Today, FOX News, Forbes, SciDevNet, ABC News, CBS News, MSNBC News, LA Times, Chinese News Service, Chinese Broadcast Service, The Calgary Sun, IOL South Africa, Journal of the Turkish Weekly
  • "African ice caps will soon disappear due to global warming" also appeared in European Commission DG Environment News Service, Science for Policy, Issue 25 (June 8, 2006)
  • Taylor, R., 2006. Nights with Bryan Crump on National Radio, Radio New Zealand. Snows of Uganda. June 26th, 2006.
  • Taylor, R., 2006. Quirks and Quarks, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Tropical glaciers. May 20, 2006.
  • Taylor, R. 2006. BBC Science in Action. Snows of Uganda. May 19, 2006
  • Johnston, I., 2006. Climate threat to glaciers on Mountains of the Moon. The Scotsman, p. 26, May 17th, 2006
  • Rose, J., 2006. Bara hälften kvar av Afrikas glaciärer. Forskning & Framstag (Swedish popular magasine), p. 11, September 2006.
  • Virto, E.C., 2006. Afrikako glaziarrak: iragharritako galera? Elhuyar Zietzia eta Teknia (Basque popular magasine) Vol. 33, p. 9
  • Taylor, R.G., 2005. The son of the snow is angry - loss of glaciers threatens indigenous culture. The New Internationalist Vol. 378, p. 6.
  • Amodeo, C., 2003. African glaciers in retreat. Geographical Magasine, pp. 10-11, December 2003
  • Mugisha, M., 2003. Adventure up the Rwenzori. The New Vision Sunday Magazine (Uganda's National Newspaper), pp. 6-13, October 5th, 2003.
  • Sample, I., 2003. "Return to the Mountains of the Moon" The Guardian (Life Section), pp. 8-9, October 2nd, 2003.
  • Taylor, R.G., 2003. Rwenzori glaciers disappearing. The New Vision (Uganda's National Newspaper), October 28th, 2003
  • Taylor, R.G. 2003. Will Rwenzori's snow vanish? The New Vision (Uganda's National Newspaper), June 16th, 2003
  • Emma Kemp, 2008. Climate change and its impacts on Lake Mahoma (Uganda) over the last 150 years. Unpublished B.Sc. Dissertation, Department of Geography, University College London.
  • Gayle McGlynn, 2007. Assessing evidence of recent environmental change in the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda using palaeolimnological techniques. Unpublished M.Sc. Dissertation, Department of Geography, University College London. Awarded Distinction.
  • Jenny Hau, 2005. Sediment record of atmospherically deposited pollutants in Rwenzori Mountain lakes, Uganda. Unpublished M.Sc. Dissertation, Department of Geography, University College London.
  • Lucinda Mileham, 2004. An investigation into the rate, causes and extent of glacial retreat on the Speke and Elena Glaciers on the Rwenzori mountains, Western Uganda. Unpublished B.Sc. Dissertation, Department of Geography, University College London. Awarded Best Undergraduate Dissertation Prize in hydrological science by the British Hydrological Society.
  • Virginia Panizzo, 2004. A 150 year palaeolimnological investigation of a remote, tropical, alpine lake. Unpublished B.Sc. Dissertation, Department of Geography, University College London. Awarded Best Undergraduate Dissertation Prize in Quaternary science by the Quaternary Research Association.
  • Adinah Shackleton, 2004. Assessing the impact of glacial recession on Alpine runoff in the Rwenzori central Massif, Uganda. Unpublished B.Sc. Dissertation, Department of Geography, University College London.