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Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

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This diary tells the story of how human activity is impacting Africa's tallest mountain in less obvious ways.

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By: Susan Fawssett (Community)

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Diary by Susan Fawssett
What first triggered your interest in environmental issues?
I first encountered Mt Kilimanjaro in 1982, 35,000 feet up in a plane destined for Dar es Salaam. The mountain’s peak broke through the clouds, striving to be noticed. I have had a tacit, unspecified relationship with the mountain ever since. I've spent much of my professional life teaching about human-environment interactions, and the fate of my beloved mountain is an example of the learning from my teaching. It amounts to a moving and in some ways tragic tale of how human activity is adversely changing our beautiful environment. Researchers have found that Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are melting. This is a particularly powerful story because the mountain sits just 300km from the equator on the African plains, and most people are surprised it even has ice and snow at its summit. The glaciers are melting at such a fast rate that scientists estimate the ice cap could be gone by 2015.
What are you working on, concerned by, or motivated by at the moment?
The retreating glaciers of Kilimanjaro have become a poster child for global warming. But perhaps more ecologically significant is the changing cloud forest which is important for the hydrology of the mountain. Since the 1940s Kilimajaro has lost nearly a third of its forest cover. This has led to a substantial decrease in annual precipitation on the mountain and dramatically rising temperatures (Hemp, 2009, p.1). Together these conditions cause fires, the number and intensity of which are increasing, which further changes the ecology of the mountain. At higher altitudes the fires are caused by the hotter, drier conditions, whilst at lower altitudes they are caused by the activities of loggers and farmers clearing the mountain’s slopes, and honey collectors trying to smoke bees out of their hives to collect the honey. These fires spread easily because of the hot, dry conditions. Whilst fires on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro are less newsworthy than the retreating glaciers, it is the fires that are likely to be far more damaging to the mountain.
What do you anticipate working on, or thinking about, in relation to environmental issues over the next 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years?
I shall be considering what can be done to safeguard the ecology of the mountain. The fires in the low altitude forests are changing vegetation species, composition and structure. About 10% of the tree species in the lower altitude forests are now deciduous, an adaptation to the drier seasons and possibly to frequent fires (Hemp, 2009, p.7). The upper forest line has also shifted down the mountain by several hundred metres (Hemp, 2009, p.1). Mountains are our talisman and our bell weather. We ignore our impact on them at our peril.
How optimistic or pessimistic are you as you look at where we might be in 2020, and why?
I’m not optimistic and I’m making this diary on behalf of my magnificent mountain as a wake-up call for humankind. By 2015 the ice and snow on Kilimanjaro’s peak will probably be gone. Glacier retreat is a symptom of the critical loss of forest cover and the resulting changing hydrology of the mountain. We can tackle forest loss and changing hydrology more readily than we can global warming. And if we do, it is a win-win issue, because doing so will incrementally combat global warming too. References: Hemp, A., Climate change and its impact on the forests of Kilimanjaro, African Journal of Ecology, 47, pp. 3-10.