The Snows of Kilimanjaro Could Be Gone by 2022

By Eliza Strickland | November 3, 2009 11:27 am

Kilimanjaro-glacierThe glaciers that shine at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, could vanish entirely within 15 years, according to a somber new report. Says glaciologist Lonnie Thompson: “Of the ice cover present in 1912 … 85% has disappeared and 26% of that present in 2000 is now gone” [USA Today]. The mountaintop glaciers are both shrinking around the edges and growing thinner, Thompson’s team found. If the current rate of ice loss continues, the mountain could be ice free as early as 2022.

Thompson says his team has fresh evidence that global warming is to blame. As similar changes are occurring on other mountains in Africa, South America, and in the Himalayas, Thompson says that global climate change, not local weather effects, must be responsible for the receding ice. “The fact that so many glaciers throughout the tropics and subtropics are showing similar responses suggests an underlying common cause,” Thompson said [AP].

For the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers used maps, aerial photographs, and satellite images to track the ice’s retreat over the last century, and also looked at data from instruments implanted in the glaciers in 2000. Some previous researchers have argued that Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are disappearing because of what they viewed as local factors, namely less snowfall and more sublimation, which turns ice directly into water vapor. But Thompson found that higher temperatures are melting the ice, and he also argues that the drier and less cloudy conditions leading to sublimation on Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro are part of a suite of changes driven by global warming. “You change the temperature profile of this planet, you are going to change precipitation and cloudiness and humidity and temperature,” he said. “Those are all part of climate change. And so to say that that Kilimanjaro is not responding to global climate change is untrue” [National Geographic News].

If the glaciers disappear entirely, it will make an anachronism of a great piece of literature. The “snows of Kilimanjaro” were made famous in the Ernest Hemingway short story of that name in 1938, in which the main character notices “as wide as all the world, great, high and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro” [USA Today].

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Image: Lonnie G. Thompson / Ohio State University

  • Frank

    To be fair, the ice ebbs & flows just like any complex system.

    If “global warming” is to blame then the root cause would be macro-system triggers like Solar Output, Regional climate shifts, and water vapor density.

    I doubt mankind has anything to do with it and if the snows disappear all together, no tax or carbon trading will bring it back.

  • Scott

    Come on now.

    Regardless if the climate is warming by manmade or by natural causes, the evidence is pretty clear that overall, the climate is warming. So, let’s just assume that your implication is correct and that global warming is completely natural. Given that, why do we think that it acceptable to make the situation worse by continuing to introduce gases into the atmosphere that have the properties of enhancing atmospheric warming?

    That’s like saying it’s OK to dump toxic waste into the ocean because deep sea volcanic vents are already dumping sulfuric acid and other toxins into the water.

    Hey, if your house is on fire, would you be OK with the fire fighters saying, “Sure, it could have started with an electrical fault, but it could have also been lightning. And since lightning is natural, we don’t think we should interfere.” If it is on fire, we work to solve the problem. We don’t ignore it and hope it goes away. And we don’t throw more gasoline on it.

    Unfortunately, I think you are right. The snows will disappear, and it’s probably too late to bring them back. But I suspect that that is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg that we will have to deal with. So, yes. Bring on carbon trading. Let’s be real about the complete life cycle costs of our energy usage. Not just the up front costs of generation.

    Will the cost of imported olive oil go up? Yes. But better that than not being able to grow good olives at all because the rainfall patterns have screwed up, and it’s too dry. (I remember the Greek wildfires of the past few years.)

  • James

    Very excellent point Scott!!!

  • AJ

    yes! thank you scott. beautifully put. even if global warming is not caused by humans (i think it is) that becomes irrelevant when you realize its implications!

  • Translator Chicago

    Mount Kilimanjaro looks so beautiful with its glaciers on top. The mountain will never be the same again without the ice…
    To solve the global warming problem, it must be stormed at the national and international levels.But the total success is built upon the action of every individual, regardless of nationality, to conserve energy and live in a greener, cleaner community.

  • bud

    Ok, I get the global warming issues, but, the democrats are using the issue to raise taxes. I agree with Scott, lets clean our houses, lower our usage of fuels. But, why is it that democrats think taxing us will reduce usage. The fact is Natural Gas is able to be made of our waist, and is more abundant than any other fuel. Yet we don’t have stations everywhere pumping natural gas. I drive a Honda GX, and pay 1.46 per gallon, and I get 30 miles to the gallons, we ZERO pollution. Make the distribution system easy and they will come. Brazil has cars that will use natural gas, alcohol, and gasoline…. We can’t buy those cars here, democrats just want to tax us with cap and trade taxes. Come on, vote them all out, they all are crooks.

    The throw some issue up and then go after businesses to get pay off’s to their campaigns and 501(c)3. Then pocket the cash, and pay themselves and their family with the tax free donated funds.

    Throw them all out, republican and democrats, elect someone new that will vote for change that is not going to tax us.

  • MForte

    Considering that I have always heard that land use is the single biggest factor in local temperatures and that land use in the area surrounding Kilamanjaro has changed drastically since the turn of the century it is strange that this seems to be ignored in all the press releases. I fear that in an effort to draw attention to what they view as the most important topic of our time they are overstating their case. Even if subsequently disproven, unlikely given the subjective nature of the whole argument, it hardly disproves global warming but it adds the possibility of muddying the water which strikes me as undesirable.

    When I say the land use has changed drastically, I mean that a lot of trees have been cut down which has the net effect of raising surface temperatures.


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