National Geographic
Menu

Journey to Vanishing Tropical Glaciers

National Geographic Explorer Neil Losin and his colleague Nate Dappen are planning an expedition to document climate change in Africa’s Rwenzori Mountains, one of the few places on Earth where glaciers can be found on the equator – and you can help them make their expedition happen! Beer is involved… Read on to learn more.

An Environment From Another Era

Lush forests filled with endemic plants cover the slopes of the Rwenzoris. Photo by Manuel Werner / Wikimedia Commons.

In central Africa, shrouded in clouds, lies a bizarre and imperiled environment. The Rwenzori Mountains, also called the Mountains of the Moon, rise over five thousand meters from the heart of Africa. The near-constant rains that saturate the mountains fuel two of Earth’s great rivers, the Nile to the east and the Congo to the west. Many of the plants and animals that live here are found nowhere else. And on their lofty summits, the Rwenzoris harbor some of the world’s only tropical glaciers.

But the Rwenzori Mountains are changing so fast that they may be unrecognizable in our lifetimes. In a rapidly warming climate, their famous rainfall is becoming less predictable. Their glaciers – icecaps perched incongruously on the equator – will likely be gone in 20 years. Meanwhile, these changes are affecting people’s lives in the surrounding communities. Local agriculture is tightly tied to the rains, so the region’s food production is dwindling. And malaria, once absent from the high elevations, is becoming more prevalent in mountain villages as disease-carrying mosquitoes thrive in the mild conditions created by a warmer climate.

The Rwenzori Mountains: Our Plan

Mountaineers scale one of the Rwenzori glaciers. Photo by Alan Dappen.

The Rwenzori Mountains weren’t explored by Europeans until the early 20th century. The Duke of the Abruzzi was the first to climb the Rwenzoris in 1906. He brought with him a team of Italian adventurers that included a young Vittorio Sella, a photographer who became famous for his stunning images of the world’s great mountains. Sella captured beautiful images of the Rwenzoris’ glacier-covered peaks, and these photographs are preserved in museum collections in northern Italy. These historical photos give us an unprecedented opportunity to visualize the impacts of a century of climate change on the Rwenzori glaciers.

Our goal is to climb the Rwenzori Mountains and recreate the images captured by Sella in 1906. More than 80% of the glaciers have disappeared already, and the visual differences will be stark. As we trek to the same vantage points where Sella took his famous photographs at the turn of the last century, we will document the unique inhabitants of the Rwenzoris: the plants, animals and people that are facing an uncertain future.

The Mountains of the Moon: an otherworldly landscape. Photo by Alan Dappen.

When we hear “climate change,” a few familiar stories probably come to mind: Receding ice in the Arctic threatens polar bears. Rising sea levels will force Pacific Islanders to abandon their homes. Alpine environments receive less attention, but face similar challenges. As the climate gets warmer, montane organisms often shift their distributions, moving to higher ground to keep pace with the surrounding climate. But mountains are finite… What will happen when these animals and plants run out of mountain? No one is really sure. But the story of the Rwenzoris doesn’t have to be a story of despair; the local people are resilient, and while there is little hope of saving the Rwenzoris’ glaciers, we think that much of the region’s unique way of life and its endemic biodiversity can be preserved if we all begin making better choices about our use of energy.

Here’s where you can help! We’ve turned to an unconventional funding source to help launch our expedition. We are finalists for a $25,000 “Stay Thirsty Grant” from Dos Equis (yes, the beer company!). The winner of the grant will be determined by an online vote, so we need your votes to make our expedition happen!

Click here to go to the voting page!

You can vote up to once per day through October 30.  Thanks in advance for your support! With any luck, the next time I blog here we will have the funding we need to start planning the expedition! We’ll definitely be sharing our adventures along the way. We think The Most Interesting Man in the World would approve!