Climate change and Kilimanjaro

Global warming and Kilimanjaro: where have Kilimanjaro’s glaciers gone?

Of the 19 square kilometres of glacial ice to be found on Africa, only 2.2 square kilometres can be found on Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, both figures used to be much higher:

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Kili’s famous glaciers have shrunk by a whopping 82% since the first survey of the summit in 1912. Even since 1989, when there were 3.3 square kilometres, there has been a decline of 33%. At that rate, say the experts, Kili will be completely ice-free within the next decade or two.‘We found that the summit of the ice fields has lowered by at least 17 metres since 1962,’ said Professor Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University. ‘That’s an average loss of about a half-metre (a foot and a half) in height each year.’

Diagram of Kilimanjaro's glaciers from a poster at the back wall of Moshi's Glacier Bar, with a couple of beer bottles in from

A quick lesson in Kilimanjaro’s glaciers from the Glacier Bar in Moshi

Should we be worried about Kilimanjaro’s disappearing glaciers?

The big question, therefore, is not whether Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are shrinking, but why – and should we be concerned? Certainly glacial retreats are nothing new: Hans Meyer, the first man to conquer Kilimanjaro, returned in 1898, nine years after his ascent, and was horrified by the extent to which the glaciers had shrunk. The ice on Kibo’s slopes had retreated by 100m on all sides, while one of the notches he had used to gain access to the crater in 1889 – and now called the Hans Meyer Notch – was twice as wide, with the ice only half as thick.

Nor are warnings of the complete disappearance of the glaciers anything new: in 1899 Meyer himself predicted that they would be gone within three decades, and the top of Kili would be decorated with nothing but bare rock.

What concerns today’s scientists, however, is that this current reduction in size of Kili’s ice-cap does seem to be more rapid and more extensive than previous shrinkages. But is it really something to worry about, or merely the latest in a series of glacial retreats experienced by Kili over the last few hundred years?

Furtwangler Glacier on the crater floor of Kilimanjaro's main Kibo summit, taken from Uhuru Peak

The remnants of the Furtwangler Glacier; note the gap that has opened up through its centre; this has led many scientists to predict the glacier could disappear altogether in the next 5-10 years.

Scientific studies of the glaciers

Professor Thompson and his team are attempting to find answers to all these questions. In January and February 2000 they drilled six ice cores through three of Kibo’s glaciers in order to research the history of the mountain’s climate over the centuries. (Follow this link to read a BBC report of their work). A weather station was also placed on the Northern Icefield to see how the current climate affects the build-up or destruction of glaciers.

Although results are still coming in from Professor Thompson’s work, early indications were not good. In a speech made at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February 2001, the professor declared that, while he cannot be sure why the ice is melting away so quickly, what is certain is that if the glaciers continue to shrink at current rates, the summit could be completely ice-free by 2015.

Trekkers walking past the Rebmann Glacier

Walking past the Rebmann Glacier towards Uhuru Peak

What the future holds

Whatever the reasons, if Kilimanjaro is to lose its snowy top, the repercussions would be extremely serious: Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are essential to the survival of the local villages, supplying their drinking water, the water to irrigate their crops and, through hydroelectric production, their power; never mind the blow the loss of the snow-cap would deal to tourism.

And these are just the local consequences. If the scientists are to be believed, what is happening on Kilimanjaro is a microcosm of what could face the entire world in future. Even more worryingly, more and more scientists are now starting to think that this future is probably already upon us.

Further information on global warming and Kilimanjaro

Ohio State University research site

Current Kilimanjaro climate statistics Link to the University of Massachusetts Climate Research Centre

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