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Mount Kilimanjaro's Glacier Is Crumbling


by Editor

October 31, 2003

Camp4 - Climbing News Archive

Andrea Minarcek
National Geographic Adventure

September 23, 2003

Story courtesy National Geograpic News

Last January, amateur adventurer Vince Keipper realized a long-time goal when he trekked to the top of Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro. But the view from Africa's 19,340-foot (5,895-meter) rooftop hardly compared to what he saw on the way up the mountain's Western Breach.

"The sound brought our group to a stop," Keipper recalled. "We turned around to see the ice mass collapse with a roar. A section of the glacier crumbled in the middle, and chunks of ice as big as rooms spilled out on the crater floor."

Keipper grabbed his camera just in time to capture a section of Kilimanjaro's massive Furtwängler Glacier spilling onto the same trail his group had ascended the very night before.

Kilimanjaro's Furtwängler Glacier collapses Dr. Vincent Keipper was in the right place at the right time to get this photo of the crumbling Furtwängler Glacier on Mt. Kilimanjaro. The photo is dramatic evidence of the glacier's recession. Room-size blocks of ice tumbled across the trail Keipper had hiked the day before.
Photo courtesy of Vincent Keipper

Keipper's photos speak for themselves, dramatic proof of a scientific near-certainty: Kilimanjaro's glaciers are disappearing. The ice fields Ernest Hemingway once described as "wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun" have lost 82 percent of their ice since 1912—the year their full extent was first measured.

If current climatic conditions persist, the legendary glaciers, icing the peaks of Africa's highest summit for nearly 12,000 years, could be gone entirely by 2020.

"Just connect the dots," said Ohio State University geologist Lonnie Thompson. "If things remain as they have, in 15 years [Kilimanjaro's glaciers] will be gone."

The Heat Is On

When Thompson's reports of glacial recession on Kilimanjaro first emerged in 2002, the story was quickly picked up and trumpeted as another example of humans destroying nature. It's easy to see why: Ice fields in the tropics—Kilimanjaro lies about 220 miles (350 kilometers) south of the Equator—are particularly susceptible to climate change, and even the slightest temperature fluctuation can have devastating effects.

"There's a tendency for people to take this temperature increase and draw quick conclusions, which is a mistake," said Douglas R. Hardy, a climatologist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, who monitored Kilimanjaro's glaciers from mountaintop weather stations since 2000. "The real explanations are much more complex. Global warming plays a part, but a variety of factors are really involved."

According to Hardy, forest reduction in the areas surrounding Kilimanjaro, and not global warming, might be the strongest human influence on glacial recession. "Clearing for agriculture and forest fires—often caused by honey collectors trying to smoke bees out of their hives—have greatly reduced the surrounding forests," he says. The loss of foliage causes less moisture to be pumped into the atmosphere, leading to reduced cloud cover and precipitation and increased solar radiation and glacial evaporation.

Evidence of glacial recession on Kilimanjaro is often dated from 1912, but most scientists believe tropical glaciers began receding as early as the 1850s. Stefan L. Hastenrath, a professor of atmospheric studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has found clues in local reports of a dramatic drop in East African lake levels after 1880. Lake evaporation indicates a decrease in precipitation and cloudiness around Kilimanjaro.

"Less cloud coverage lets more sunlight filter through and hit the glaciers," Hastenrath said. "That increase in sunlight then provides more energy for evaporation of the glacier."

Hastenrath found further evidence in sailing expedition reports from the same period. "Ships along the East African coast recorded very fast equatorial winds around 1880," he said. "Just like today, swift westerlies are always linked with drier seasons in East Africa, so it's very likely Kilimanjaro had a dry period around this time."

Along with a higher risk of evaporation, a drop in precipitation also makes for a dark glacial surface, made up of old, dirty snow. A darker glacial surface absorbs more solar radiation than fresh, white snow (like a blacktop playground baking in the sun).

Global warming began to take effect in East Africa by the early 20th century.

"The warming increases humidity, and as the air gets more moist, it hinders evaporation," Hastenrath explained. "The energy saved from evaporation is instead spent on melting. That might seem like a good thing—to stop evaporation of the glaciers—but it's certainly not. Melting is eight times more energy-efficient than evaporation, so now, with global warming, the glaciers are disappearing eight times faster than before."

Frozen Assets

Now scientists are scrambling to learn as much as they can from a vanishing resource. "Kilimanjaro's glaciers are the only source for tropical ice core records for the whole continent of Africa," Hardy explained. "There's been somewhat of a scramble to collect data."

The glacial ice core samples (or rods) hold vital atmospheric and climatic records—information that is key to understanding tropical weather patterns over the past millennia. The bottommost layer of the ice records air and climate data as far back as 11,500 years ago, near the end of the last major Ice Age.

On many glaciers, collected surface water is already filtering into the porous ice below and tainting the weather archives.

"Some scientists are even trying to collect enough core samples to store some in freezers," Hardy said. "So they can undertake analyses both now and later, when more sophisticated technology is available."

For many, though, more superficial concerns of an ice-free Kilimanjaro are almost as important as the history buried deep below the surface.

"If the ice disappears, it'll be an aesthetic disaster," said Hastenrath, who has climbed the peak three times. "There's hardly anything more beautiful than the glaciers on Kilimanjaro."

Will other would-be tourists feel the same way? Ever mindful of the economic pearl shining 19,340 feet (5,895 meters) above them, the surrounding villages can't help but worry that tourists will lose interest if Kilimanjaro loses its glaciers.

Tourism brings more foreign currency into Tanzania than any other industry, and Kilimanjaro's ice-covered peak is a major East African draw. "The sad reality is that the loss of Kilimanjaro's glaciers probably has to affect the local economy," Hardy said.

It's uncertain whether there is enough time to salvage the glaciers before they disappear altogether, but hordes of scientists are willing to try. Some have suggested covering Kilimanjaro's ice cap with a bright white cover—inspired by those used in England to protect cricket fields from the elements—as a membrane to seal the glaciers, prevent evaporation and reflect solar radiation.

"Some of these ideas are just pipe dreams," Hardy said, "but as points of discussion about the importance of Kilimanjaro to Africa—and to the whole world—they are very interesting."

The Final Meltdown

Could anything have saved the portion of the Furtwängler Glacier that Keipper saw crumble? Probably not. The entire glacier is predicted to disappear well before the other fields.

When it was drilled for ice core samples in 2000, the Furtwängler was completely water-saturated. Some scientists attribute the overflow to volcanic vents, heating the base of the glacier and melting the bottom layer of ice. Others, including Hardy and Lonnie Thompson, who released the 2000 Ohio State University report, believe that colder air surrounding the glacier kept its walls frozen even as portions of the interior melted away.

"If enough of that water pressure built up, it seems likely that there was enough energy to burst through the frozen glacier wall," Hardy said.

The Furtwängler Glacier may continue to disappear in massive chunks, just like the icy boulders Keipper and his colleagues saw tumble down the crater floor. If conditions remain as they have, the rest of Kilimanjaro's ice will follow suit, but rather than exploding, they will steadily and stealthily evaporate into African air.

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