Ice, snow, and glaciers are not commonly associated with Africa, perhaps due to stereotypical images of orange savannah sunsets generally being used to represent the whole continent. But Africa, Equatorial East Africa to be precise, is home to three iconic glacier groups, which are rapidly melting away.
Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Kenya, and the Rwenzori Mountains between Uganda and the DRC have the totality of African glaciers, all of them Unesco’s World Heritage Sites. Combined, the three have 37 individual glaciers with an area of 6.17 square miles (16 sq. km), according to Unesco.
Worldwide, glaciers amount to 0.5% of land surfaces, with Antarctic and Greenlands ice sheets covering another 9.5% of Earth. Glaciers are bodies of ice that form out of accumulated snow that compacts and crystallizes into ice during extended periods of time (sometimes millennia).
They are dynamic in nature, meaning that they normally shrink and expand during the summer and winter months. But the climate crisis is making them recede or disappear entirely, with 8 of the 10 worst glacier mass-loss years taking place after 2010, according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service.
The 3 Iconic African Glaciers
Perhaps the best-known, on the account of being on Africa’s highest mountain, are in Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. This dormant volcano is 19.340 feet high (5.895 meters) and is the world’s largest free-standing mountain. Each year, hundreds of climbers attempt its three cones: Shira, Mawanzi, and Kibo, the highest one which in Swahili means ‘freedom.’
Mount Kenya, the second-highest mountain in Africa and an ancient extinct volcano houses 12 remnant glaciers today, all of them rapidly receding. Since 1949 it is protected as part of Mount Kenya National Park. Its highest peak, called Batian, reaches 17.058 feet (5.199 meters).
The Rwenzori Mountains have the least known glaciers in Africa. Once thought by Ptolemy and the ancient Greeks to be the mythical ‘Mountains of the Moon’ that sourced the Nile River, they have glaciers on their three highest peaks: the Baker, the Speke, and the Stanley, this last one being Africa’s third highest mountain at 17.761 feet (5.109 meters) high. In 1906 they had 43 glaciers, but today they are on their way to extinction: “We know that the Rwenzori glaciers are not going to last long,” said hydrogeologist Richard Taylor to The Guardian.
Africa Has Glaciers, But For How Long?
Worldwide, glaciers provide vital water resources to half of humanity. Their water is used for domestic use, agriculture, and hydropower on a global scale. Although Africa’s glaciers are too small to be significant water reservoirs, they are and have been precious sites of cultural, scientific, and touristic importance for the peoples of the countries they’re in, and the continent as a whole.
But a rapidly warming planet means that they are receding fast, and might soon be gone completely, as early as 2050, according to some to scientific studies.
Right now, every continent in the world has glaciers, except for Australia. But this could change in the next few decades if Africa’s ones go completely extinct. Even if the temperature rise is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which increasingly seems an unlikely scenario, one-third of glaciers in World-Heritage Sites will be gone in 2050, including all the African ones.
Yes, Africa has glaciers. But for how long?
Interested in more? Read about the Great Green Wall Of Africa.