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Rwenzori Mountains

Related subjects: African Geography

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Rwenzori Range

The Rwenzori Mountains, previously called the Ruwenzori Range (the spelling having been changed in about 1980 to conform more closely with the local name) is a mountain range of central Africa, often referred to as Mt. Rwenzori, located on the border between Uganda and the DRC, with heights of up to 5,109 m (16,761 ft) at 0°23′09″N 29°52′18″E Coordinates: 0°23′09″N 29°52′18″E. The highest Rwenzoris are permanently snow-capped, and they, along with Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya are the only such in Africa.

Geologic history

Margherita Peak on Mount Stanley is the highest point in the range

The mountains formed about three million years ago in the late Pliocene as a result of an uplifted block of crystalline rocks such as: gneiss, amphibolite granite and quartzite, "pushed up by tremendous forces originating deep within the earth’s crust". This uplift divided the paleolake Obweruka and created two of the present-day African Great Lakes: Albert and Edward and George on the flanks of the Albertine (western) Rift of the East African Rift, the African part of the Great Rift Valley.

The range is about 120 km (75 mi) long and 65 km (40 mi) wide. It consists of six massifs separated by deep gorges: Mount Stanley (5,109m), Mount Speke (4,890m), Mount Baker (4,843m), Mount Emin (4,798m), Mount Gessi (4,715m) and Mount Luigi di Savoia (4,627m). Mount Stanley is the largest and has several subsidiary summits, with Margherita Peak being the highest point. The rock is metamorphic, and the mountains are believed to have been tilted and squeezed upwards by plate movement. They are in an extremely humid area, and frequently enveloped in clouds.

Human history

House and people in Kasese District, Uganda

The Rwenzori range is the home of the Konjo and Amba peoples. In the early 1900s, these two tribes were added to the Toro Kingdom by the colonial powers. The Konjo and Amba agitated for separation from Toro beginning in the 1950s, a movement that became an armed secessionist movement, known as Rwenzururu, by the mid-1960s. The insurgency ended through a negotiated settlement in 1982, though the Rwenzururu Kingdom was acknowledged by the government in 2008.

The first modern European sighting of the Rwenzori was by the expedition of Henry Morton Stanley in 1889 (the aforementioned clouds are considered to explain why two decades of previous explorers had not seen them). On June 7, the expedition's second-in-command and its military commander, William Grant Stairs, climbed to 10,677 feet, the first known non-African ever to climb in the range. The first ascent to the summit was made by the Duke of the Abruzzi in 1906.

Flora and fauna

Lower Bigo Bog at 3400m in the Rwenzori Mountains with giant lobelia in foreground

The Rwenzori are known for their vegetation, ranging from tropical rainforest through alpine meadows to snow; and for their animal population, including forest elephants, several primate species and many endemic birds. The range supports its own species and varieties of Giant groundsel and Giant lobelia and even has a six metre high heather covered in moss that lives on one of its peaks. Most of the range is now a World Heritage Site and is covered jointly by The Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda and the Parc National des Virunga in Congo.

Vegetation zones
There are 5 different Vegetation Zones found in the Rwenzori Mountains. These are grassland (1000–2000m), montane forest (2000–3000m), bamboo/mimulopsis zone (2500–3500m), Heather/Rapanea zone (3000–4000m) and the afro-alpine moorland zone (4000–4500m). At higher altitudes some plants reach an unusually large size, such as lobelia and groundsels. The vegetation in the Rwenzori Mountains is unique to equatorial alpine Africa.
Flora vs altitude
1500 2000 2500 3000 3200 3400 3600 3800 4000 4200 4400 4600 4800 5000 5100
Lamiales Mimulopsis elliotii
Mimulopsis arborescens
Rosales Prunus africana Hagenia abyssinica
Alchemilla subnivalis
Alchemilla stuhlmanii
Alchemilla triphylla
Alchemilla johnstonii
Alchemilla argyrophylla
Fabales Albizia gummifera
Cornales Alangium chinense
Malpighiales Casearia battiscombei
Croton macrostachyus
Neoboutonia macrocalyx
Symphonia globulifera
Hypericum sp
Hypericum revolutum
Hypericum bequaertii
Asparagales Scadoxus cyrtanthiflorus
Disa stairsii
Asterales Dendrosenecio erici-rosenii
Dendrosenecio adnivalis
Helichrysum sp.
Lobelia bequaertii
Lobelia wollastonii
Helichchrysum guilelmii
Helichchrysum stuhlmanii
Senecio transmarinus
Senecio mattirolii
Apiales Peucedanum kerstenii
Myrtales Syzygium guineense
Sapindales Allophylus abyssinicus
Gentianales Tabernaemontana sp. Galium ruwenzoriense
Ericales Pouteria adolfi-friedericii Erica arborea
Erica trimera
Erica silvatica
Erica johnstonii
Brassicales Subularia monticola
Primulales Rapanea rhododendroides
Ranunculales Ranunculus oreophytus
Arabis alpina
Santalales Strombosia scheffleri
Poales Yushania alpina Carex runssoroensis
Festuca abyssinica
Poa ruwenzoriensis
Lecanorales Usnea
1500 2000 2500 3000 3200 3400 3600 3800 4000 4200 4400 4600 4800 5000 5100


Glacial recession in Rwenzori

Ornithologist James P. Chapin on a Rwenzori expedition, 1925

A subject of concern in recent years has been the impact of climate change on Rwenzori's glaciers. In 1906 the Rwenzori had 43 named glaciers distributed over 6 mountains with a total area of 7.5 km²., about half the total glacier area in Africa. By 2005, less than half of these survive, on only 3 mountains, with an area of about 1.5 km². Recent scientific studies such as those by Dr Richard Taylor of University College London have attributed this to global climate change, and investigated its impact on the mountain's vegetation and biodiversity. In general, though, glacier growth and recedence are not necessarily tied to trends in temperatures as much as trends in precipitation.

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