Report: Melting Glaciers Foretell Future Climate Impacts in Africa

Climate change is causing food insecurity, poverty, and displacement across the African continent, finds a new report from the World Meteorological Organization.

View from Margherita Peak, Mount Stanley, Kilembe Route, Rwenzori National Park, Kasese District, Uganda
Rwenzori National Park, Uganda. Morgan Trimble / Getty Images

When they think of Africa, people in the West typically think of lions, elephants, zebras, and giraffes. If you ask climate scientists, however, the most appropriate mascots for the African continent aren’t the wild animals that tourists see on safari. Rather, they’re the rare glaciers that occupy Africa’s highest peaks.

Presently, Africa has only three such glaciers: on Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, on Kenya’s Mount Kenya, and in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains. If climate change continues at its current pace, all three will disappear by the 2040s, according to a new multi-agency report published this month by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), with support from the United Nations.

Titled “The State of the Climate in Africa 2020,” the report examines the impact of climate change on Africa and concludes that the continent is “exceptionally vulnerable to climate variability and change compared with many other regions.”

“During 2020, the climate indicators in Africa were characterized by continued warming temperatures; accelerating sea-level rise; extreme weather and climate events, such as floods, landslides, and droughts; and associated devastating impacts. The rapid shrinking of the last remaining glaciers in eastern Africa, which are expected to melt entirely in the near future, signals the threat of imminent and irreversible change to the Earth system,” WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas writes in the report’s foreword.

Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, is in the climate crosshairs, according to WMO, which points out that nearly half the population in sub-Saharan Africa live below the poverty line and depend on weather-sensitive activities like rain-fed agriculture, herding, and fishing. What’s more, those populations have limited capacity to adapt to climate change due to low levels of education and health care.

“Africa is witnessing increased weather and climate variability, which leads to disasters and disruption of economic, ecological, and social systems,” African Union Commission Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture H.E. Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko writes in the report’s preface, in which she notes that up to 118 million extremely poor Africans—people living on less than $1.90 per day—will be exposed to droughts, floods, and extreme heat by 2030. “This will place additional burdens on poverty alleviation efforts and significantly hamper growth in prosperity. In sub-Saharan Africa, climate change could further lower gross domestic product by up to 3% by 2050. This presents a serious challenge for climate adaptation and resilience actions because not only are physical conditions getting worse, but also the number of people being affected is increasing.”

Along with melting glaciers—which will have “touristic and scientific” consequences—WMO details several specific impacts that climate change already has had on Africa:

  • Warming temperatures: The 30-year warming trend for 1991-2020 was higher than it was for 1961-1990 in all African subregions, and “significantly higher” than it was for 1931-1960.
  • Rising sea levels: The rates of sea-level rise along Africa’s tropical and South Atlantic coasts, as well as its Indian Ocean coast, are higher than the global average.
  • Increasing precipitation and drought: Above average precipitation is common in several African subregions while persistent drought is common in others. Precipitation is so substantial that many lakes and rivers have reached record-high levels, leading to lethal flooding in at least 15 African countries.

These and other events have led to a “significant increase” in food insecurity and the displacement of more than 1.2 million people due to natural disasters.

But not all hope is lost: Although it will be pricey in the short term, investing in climate change adaptation—for example, hydrometeorological infrastructure and early warning systems in disaster-prone areas—can save lives and money in the long term.

“Financing adaptation to climate change will be more cost-effective than frequent disaster relief,” WMO says in its report, in which it estimates that climate adaptation in sub-Saharan Africa will cost $30 billion to $50 billion per year over the next decade. “Adaptation will be expensive … but savings from reduced post-disaster spending could be three to 12 times the cost of upfront investment in resilience and coping mechanisms. Adaptation to climate change would also benefit other development areas, such as resilience to pandemics, and ultimately boost growth, reduce inequalities, and sustain macroeconomic stability.”

To implement its climate plans, WMO estimates that Africa will need investments of over $3 trillion in mitigation and adaptation by 2030.

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  1. "State of the Climate in Africa 2020." World Meteorological Organization, 2021.