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East Africa is home to three glacierized mountain massifs: Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Rwenzori mountains. Located slightly north of the equator, along the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Rwenzori, also called the Mountains of the Moon are the largest of the three massifs and hold some of the most mysterious and least studied glaciers of the continent. 



This poetic name was actually given by Ptolemy about 1800 years ago. For centuries people had been looking for the sources of the Nile. Rumors had spread about the existence of snowy mountains that fed the Nile. Ptolemy was the first to put the Rwenzoris on a map and called them Lunae Montes the Mountains of The Moon. The name Rwenzori is a colonial-era corruption of the name "Rwenzururu" describing a "place of snow". The local name of the Rwenzori range is "Gambaragara" which means "The Great Leaf in which the clouds are boiled". 

map rwenzori lakes.jpg


The Rwenzori mountains rose about 10 million years ago. Today, these mountains straddle the equator, extending north-south for 110 km. The landscape of the Rwenzori has been sculpted by the repeated advances of glaciers, resulting in numerous lakes and six mountains rising over 4500 m: Mts Stanley (5109 m), Speke (4889 m), Baker (4842 m), Gessi (4715 m), Emin (4791 m) and Luigi di Savoia (4626 m). Each of these consists of several peaks, the highest one being Margharita on Mt Stanley 5109 m. Three of these mountains are still glacierized, Mts Gessi, Emin and Luigi di Savoia have completely lost their ice cover.


300 000 years ago, researchers estimate that large ice caps covered the Rwenzoris, extending over 500 km2. This period is defined as the Katabarua stage. 100 000 years ago, glaciers were still reaching moderate elevations of 2000 - 3000 m, building significant moraine complexes. More recently, at the end of the Little Ice Age, glaciers occupied about 10 km2. Glaciers termini could be found as low as 4300 m high.

The first photographs of the glaciers were taken in 1906 by Vittorio Sella, and Italian photographer and explorer who accompanied the Duke of the Abruzzi on their Ruwenzori expedition. At the time the glaciers had lost about 3.5 km2. The first modern research expeditions took place in the 1950s-1960s. At the time the total area of the glaciers was estimated around 1.68 km2, a really significant retreat.

Today, scientists predict that no permanent ice will remain after 2025.



The large precipitation rates of the mountain range, combined with glacial meltwater provides a significant source of water into the Nile river system. Even though the contribution from the glaciers is very small compared to that of the rainfall, discharge from the glaciers becomes extremely valuable during the dry season, particularly at high elevations. Rivers coming from the Rwenzoris are a vital resource for Western Uganda.


Due to its elevation, the Rwenzoris draw up hot and humid air masses from the surrounding plains, forcing precipitations higher up. Annual rainfall varies between 2000 and 3000 mm per year, and is heaviest on the eastern slopes, which face the prevailing winds. Rainy period range from mid-march to may, from september to mid-december. But occasional rainfalls can occur throughout the year. In terms of temperatures, freezing occurs 80% of the time at 4000 m high at night. During the day, temperatures can oscillate between -5°c and 20°c at the alpine and nival zones.



The Rwenzori range is renowned for its rich biodiversity and high level of endemicity. This large natural fortress surrounded by plains is a mine of unique ecosystems to which a variety of animals and plants have adapted.

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