Tag Archives: weather

Volcanic visions from windy Bwindi

With all our day-to-day concerns about Bwindi’s mountain gorillas, animals and plants we tend to focus our attention close by on the forest. Indeed, on the steep slopes, we spend a lot of time watching our feet. But sometimes its worth looking to the horizon.

The views from Bwindi can be impressive. The last few days they have been especially clear thanks to the wind. The air is clear and we can see far.

You need to find the right vantage point — trees are common obstacles in a forest — but sometimes to the North the peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains can be seen.  Unfortunately it is too far to definitively distinguish shrinking glaciers from wisps of cloud. Directly to the West we can see the stacked ridges and hills, receding with increasingly faded colours, across the forest and far into Congo.

But the real iconic image lies to the South: into Rwanda and the neighbouring portion of Congo. There, like fallen legendary characters of some ancient epic, lie the cones and crags of the the Virunga Volcanoes. Here, where the Earth is rupturing along the extent of the great Albertine Rift Valley, we see the scars where the Earth itself had bled molten rock and ashes.

The Virunga volcanoes date back to about 12 million years ago. The volcanoes in Uganda are all, as far as anyone knows, long extinct. Mt. Sabinyo likely dates to the early Pliocene (four or five million years) while Mt. Muhavura and Mt. Gahinga are younger at just a few hundred thousand years or so. I have not been able to find any definitive account when any of these mountains last erupted (any leads welcome!).

The Virunga Volcanoes as seen from the road below ITFC, Ruhija, Bwindi – April 2011. The mountains are (from left to right) Muhavura, Gahinga, Sabinyo, Visoke  (in clouds) and Karisimbe

Another view of the Virunga Volcanoes as seen from the road below ITFC, Ruhija, Bwindi – April 2011

Generally the mountains get younger, and less furrowed and rugged, as you move Westward (to the right in the photos). To find live volcanoes we need enter the Congo. Actually, we don’t need to go. We can see some hint of the drama from here.

During the darkest hours of the last few nights, when looking from our house here at ITFC a red-glowing smudge can be seen on the southern horizon (right of Karisimbe in the picture above). The fiery light is coming from the clouds over Congo’s most active volcano: Nyiragongo. A lava lake casts abundant heat onto the skies above. Unfortunately it is too dim to make a convincing photograph — but to night-adapted-eyes it is clear.

We’ve seen the glow occasionally over the last three years but never so regularly as the last week. It is incredible to contemplate the amounts of heat released from this mountain minute by minute, month by month, and year by year.

I was curious what it looks like from nearby and found some recent pictures. They are striking. I’ll let one image speak for itself and give you the link to more here.  Enjoy!


Lava lake – Nyiragongo (from National Geographic: see link above)

I wonder if the mountain gorillas ever turn their eyes and thoughts to the far horizon.  If so, I wonder what they make of it.  Any ideas anyone?

Best wishes


Which came first the forest or the rain?

It is rainy season here. Most days (today included) we get an impressive storm and our water tanks overflow. We are in an equatorial rain forest after all: we have the location, trees and weather to prove it.

Clouds over Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Clouds are often found over forests. What causes what?

Here is an interesting question: is the forest here because of the rain or is it the other way around? Being in a highland area we probably get much of our rain simply due to the terrain (mountains tend to be wet even in dry regions) and the forest vegetation takes advantage of that.

But what about in the wet lowland forests of the Congo and Amazon basins? How does so much rain get so far inland from the oceans? You might think that climate scientists know the answer. Actually they don’t. That troubles me.

Clouds forming over the forest — Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

I have spent some time trying to understand how so much rain gets into the interior of wet continental regions. Why do winds blow the way they do and why do they carry so much rain?

One theory really deserves recognition.  The theory suggests that forests are the reason: they attract rain. The physical principles behind this idea have been explained by two physicists. Their publications are not easy to read and follow … but I have spent some time trying to share their ideas because I think they are important.

The basic concept relates to how water vapour, via condensation and evaporation, gives rise to differences in atmospheric pressure between areas and thus cause winds — these winds in turn control where rain comes from and goes to. If the theory is true we have a whole new way to understand how climate works and a whole new reason to value forests.

Last year April, Daniel Murdiyarso and myself published an overview of the basic ideas that got some media coverage. You may have seen some of it: e.g. Mongabay, New Scientist and Scientific American. We even got a recent mention in to the Economist. If you like you can see our original article in Bioscience (here is a text version, but it lacks the figures, ask me to send the file if you are interested).

Morning time clouds — Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Would the clouds be there without the forest?

So why is this news? Well, I’ll get there in a moment.

Recently I have teamed up with the physicists themselves: Drs. Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov. You can lean more if you visit their site.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that there is a lot of critical comment about their climate ideas out there —  science works through critical scrutiny and radical ideas should certainly be well scrutinised. I welcome that.  But it also seems to me that some, perhaps most, of the comments are misdirected — when we look in detail the theory is not being understood in the manner intended. Misreadings and assumptions get in the way.

So to get a fair hearing we need to communicate the ideas as clearly as we can. That’s not so easy for math whizz Russians, writing and talking atmospheric physics, and not for me either, but together we have tried. Since today we have a new manuscript up for anyone, including you, to see.  Feel free to take a look at the text here.  Its technical  because climate science needs to be but we also hope it makes good clear sense.

Will it change the World? I don’t know. But it might.

So now we wait and see what the rest of the scientific community thinks. Some may like it, others may not  … if their comments are insightful I wont mind either way (well not too much). That’s how science moves forward.

Let me know what you think – thanks!

Best wishes