The Heat Is Online

Kilimanjaro's Glacial Retreat Confirms Warming

Glacier Loss Seen as Clear Sign of Human Role in Global Warming

By Andrew C. Revkin, The New York Times, Feb. 19, 2001

The icecap atop Mount Kilimanjaro, which for thousands of years has floated like a cool beacon over the shimmering plain of Tanzania, is retreating at such a pace that it will disappear in less than 15 years, according to new studies.

The vanishing of the seemingly perpetual snows of Kilimanjaro that inspired Ernest Hemingway, echoed by similar trends on ice-capped peaks from Peru to Tibet, is one of the clearest signs that a global warming trend in the last 50 years may have exceeded typical climate shifts and is at least partly caused by gases released by human activities, a variety of scientists say.

Measurements taken over the last year on Kilimanjaro show that its glaciers are not only retreating but also rapidly thinning, with one spot having lost a yard of thickness since last February, said Dr. Lonnie G. Thompson, a senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center of Ohio State University.

Altogether, he said, the mountain has lost 82 percent of the icecap it had when it was first carefully surveyed, in 1912.

Given that the retreat started a century ago, Dr. Thompson said, it is likely that some natural changes were affecting the glacier before it felt any effect from the large, recent rise in carbon dioxide and other heat- trapping greenhouse gases from smokestacks and tailpipes. And, he noted, glaciers have grown and retreated in pulses for tens of thousands of years.

But the pace of change measured now goes beyond anything in recent centuries.

"There may be a natural part of it, but there's something else being superimposed on top of it," Dr. Thompson said. "And it matches so many other lines of evidence of warming.

Whether you're talking about bore- hole temperatures, shrinking Arctic sea ice, or glaciers, they're telling the same story."

Dr. Thompson presented the fresh data yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

Other recent reports of changes under way in the natural world, like gaps in sea ice at the North Pole or shifts in animal populations, can still be ascribed to other factors, many scientists say, but many add that having such a rapid erosion of glaciers in so many places is harder to explain except by global warming.

The retreat of mountain glaciers has been seen from Montana to Mount Everest to the Swiss Alps. In the Alps, scientists have estimated that by 2025 glaciers will have lost 90 percent of the volume of ice that was there a century ago. (Only Scandinavia seems to be bucking the trend, apparently because shifting storm tracks in Europe are dumping more snow there.)

But the melting is generally quickest in and near the tropics, Dr. Thompson said, with some ancient glaciers in the Andes — and the ice on Kilimanjaro — melting fastest of all.

Separate studies of air temperature in the tropics, made using high- flying balloons, have shown a steady rise of about 15 feet a year in the altitude at which air routinely stays below the freezing point. Dr. Thompson said that other changes could also be contributing to the glacial shrinkage, but the rising warm zone is probably the biggest influence.

Trying to stay ahead of the widespread melting, Dr. Thompson and a team of scientists have been hurriedly traveling around the tropics to extract cores of ice from a variety of glaciers containing a record of thousands of years of climate shifts. The data may help predict future trends.

The four-inch-thick ice cylinders are being stored in a deep-frozen archive at Ohio State, he said, so that as new technologies are developed for reading chemical clues in bubbles and water in ancient ice, there will still be something to examine.

The sad fact, he said, is that in a matter of years, anyone wanting to study the glaciers of Africa or Peru will probably have to travel to Columbus, Ohio, to do so.

Dr. Richard B. Alley, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, said the melting trend and the link — at least partly — to human influence is "depressing," not only because of the loss of data but also because of the remarkable changes under way to such familiar landscapes.

"What is a snowcap worth to us?" he said. "I don't know about you, but I like the snows of Kilimanjaro."

The accelerating loss of mountain glaciers is also described in a scientific report on the impact of global warming, which is being released today in Geneva by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an influential network of scientists advising world governments under the auspices of the United Nations. The melting is likely to threaten water supplies in places like Peru and Nepal, the report says, and could also lead to devastating flash floods.

Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, may provide the most vivid image of the change in glaciers, but, Dr. Thompson said, the rate of retreat is far faster along the spine of the Andes, and the consequences more significant. For 25 years, he has been tracking a particular Peruvian glacier, Qori Kalis, where the pace of shrinkage has accelerated enormously just in the last three years.

From 1998 to 2000, the glacier pulled back 508 feet a year, he said. "That's 33 times faster than the rate in the first measurement period," he said, referring to a study from 1963 to 1978.

In the short run, this means the hydroelectric dams and reservoirs downstream will be flush with water, he said, but in the long run the source will run dry.

"The whole country right now, for its hydropower, is cashing in on a bank account that was built up over thousands of years but isn't being replenished," he said.

Once that is gone, he added, chances are that the communities will have to turn to oil or coal for power, adding even more greenhouse gases to the air.

The changes in the character of Kilimanjaro are registering beyond the ranks of climate scientists. People in the tourism business around the mountain and surrounding national park are worried that visitors will no longer be drawn to the peak once it has lost its glimmering cap.

Dr. Douglas R. Hardy, a geologist at the University of Massachusetts, returned from Kilimanjaro last Thursday with the first yearlong record of weather data collected by a probe placed near the summit.

Just before he left, he had a long conversation with the chief ranger of Kilimanjaro National Park, who expressed deep concern about the trend. "That mountain is the most mystical, magical draw to people's imagination," Dr. Hardy said. "Once the ice disappears, it's going to be a very different place."

And the melting continues. When Dr. Hardy climbed the mountain to retrieve the data, he discovered that the weather instruments, erected on a tall pole, had fallen over because the ice around the base was gone.

TANZANIA: Kilimanjaro shows local costs of global change

NAIROBI, 8 Nov 2001 (IRIN) - Mt Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania could lose its entire icecap by 2015, symbolising that global climate change "may be felt first and hardest by the environment and people of Africa", the environmental lobby group Greenpeace reported this week.

Ten years ago, glaciers covered most of the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, the Name of which derives from Kilima Njaro or "shining mountain" in Swahili.

According to some projections, almost the whole of Kilimanjaro's icecap could vanish in the next 15 years if recession continues at the present rate, the NGO said in a press release on Tuesday.

As environment ministers from around the world gathered in Morocco to Finalize the Kyoto Protocol on mitigating global climate change, environmental campaigners on Mt Kilimanjaro highlighted the risks to the environment and livelihoods in northern Tanzania, and Africa in general.

Western industrialised nations were trying to ensure that the protocol was as weak as possible in order to protect their atmosphere-polluting industries, but catastrophes such as the loss of the icecap on Kilimanjaro were "the  price we pay if climate change is allowed to go unchecked", said Greenpeace campaigner Joris Thijssen.

"Here in Africa, we will not only lose glaciers but will face more extreme droughts and floods, widespread agriculture losses and increased infectious diseases, all of which are felt most by people in developing nations," Thijssen added.

Peaking at 5,895 metres, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and home to at least 1,800 species of flowering plants and 35 of mammals. The mountain is also a major source of water supply to some 5 percent of Tanzanians, and up to one million people earn a living from it, either  through agriculture or the tourism industry, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the capital, Dar es Salaam.

Scientists on Thursday warned that rising temperatures, linked with emissions of greenhouse gases, could damage the ability of vital crops such as rice, maize and wheat to seed themselves. Key cash crops in East Africa, such as coffee and tea, would also be vulnerable to global warming in the coming decades, according to a statement from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

"Poor farmers here [in East Africa] face declining yields and incomes in the traditional coffee- and tea -growing areas, pushing them into even more  biting poverty," said executive director Klaus Toepfer.

That increased the fear of desperate farmers being forced into higher, cooler mountainous areas, intensifying pressure on sensistive forests, threatening wildlife and the quantity and quality of water, he said.

"This can only lead to environmental damage which, in turn, can lead to increased poverty, hunger and ill-health," he added.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday reminded delegates at the climate change conference in Morocco that the fight for a meaningful Kyoto treaty was "not just an environmental issue" but "a fundamental development issue".

Mountain glaciers are sensitive indicators of climate change, and those at tropical latitudes are particularly responsive. In November 1990, Kilimanjaro was well flanked by glaciers on its southern And southwestern slopes, but these receded alarmingly within a decade, as Detailed in photographs from space taken by the crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-97 on 2 December last, Greenpeace reported on Tuesday.

Ohio State University Prof Lonnie Thompson in February presented findings that one-third of the ice field on Kilimanjaro had disappeared, or melted, over the last 12 years, it said.

An estimated 82 percent of the icecap crowning Kilimanjaro when it was first surveyed thoroughly in 1912 was now gone, and the ice had also thinned out by as much as a metre in one area, it added.

In addition to climate change, encroachments around mountain resources -through farming, grazing, gathering of fodder and commercial logging - have resulted in increased levels of poverty for resident communities, according to Nehemiah Murusuri of UNDP Tanzania.

Other major threats to Kilimanjaro include land degradation due to soil erosion, littering by tourists and guides, and the shrinkage of its water resources.

A project launched by the UNDP and the UN Foundation in September is intended to benefit 20,000 people directly and 200,000 indirectly by involving the communities who live around Mt Kilimanjaro in conserving the mountain and using its resources in a sustainable manner.

However, community involvement in conservation of Mt Kilimanjaro at the micro level will mean little if global climate change causes ecological loss on a larger, devastating scale.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported earlier this year that average global temperature could increase by up to six degrees Celsius over the next 100 years, yet many ecosystems could tolerate a change of only two degrees before risking unpredictable damage, Greenpeace reported on Tuesday.

"This is not just about losing beautiful landscapes. Climate changes affect the whole ecosystem, and that means people's lives all around the globe," it added.