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The vanishing snows of Mount Kilimanjaro

Updated Thursday 25th September 2014

According to some estimates the snows of Kilimanjaro could vanish completely by 2030.

Mount Kilimanjaro Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Anna Humphreys

Kilimanjaro can be a difficult mountain to see. Despite its immense size and altitude – the highest point is 5895 metres above sea level – the tallest mountain in Africa is obscured by cloud for much of the year. In January 1983 I hitchhiked from the Kenyan capital Nairobi to Mombasa hoping to see Kilimanjaro, but to the south the mountain was completely shrouded in cloud. Two months later I made the return journey, hitching a lift back to Nairobi in a car with a Kenyan man and an Australian woman. Once again it was cloudy to the south, but this time my luck was in. A couple of hours into the journey we were treated to an excellent view of Mount Kilimanjaro peeking through the top of low lying clouds on the horizon, its top almost completely covered in snow. I was delighted. I had glimpsed one of Africa’s crown jewels.

Fast forward over thirty years. In August 2014 I travelled with my wife and two children to Tanzania for a safari. We landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport and stayed at the nearby Kia Lodge. I awoke the next morning eager to set eyes once more on the mountain. But there was nothing but grey cloud to be seen. It was the same for the entire week, and the best we could see was the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro disappearing into a low base of mist and cloud.

Then on our very last day when canoeing in Arusha National Park we were able to catch occasional glimpses of the mountain peak. Later that afternoon on the drive back to the Kia Lodge the cloud slowly cleared and we were treated to a near-uninterrupted view of Kilimanjaro in the stillness of the early evening. The following day we awoke at 4:00 am to catch our flight home. As the aircraft reached its cruising altitude we saw Kilimanjaro rising through the clouds illuminated by a spectacular sun rise. It was a majestic sight. I had first seen this mountain as a young man, wandering through Africa and drifting through my twenties. Now I was a family man with a career. A lot had changed in my life with the passage of time.

But the changes to Kilimanjaro were more profound. The snows of the mountain, first immortalised in 1936 in a short story by Ernest Hemmingway, were considerably diminished from when I first saw the mountain from Kenya as a backpacker. I had carried that image of a snow-covered crown with me ever since. Of course, I had heard of the melting snows of Kilimanjaro – as a specialist in environmental change in the geography department of The Open University it is impossible not to -  but even so it was real shock to see at first hand just how rapidly the snows of the mountain have receded in just three short decades. Over half of the top of the mountain is now bare rock. Despite the stunning view from the aircraft, and as my daughter photographed the mountain on her mobile phone, I felt a sadness as I realised I was a witness of global warming.

Anthropogenic climate change is the main cause of Kilimanjaro’s vanishing snow cover. The glaciers of the mountain have been thinning and retreating for several years now, a pattern repeated around the world for other glaciers in the equatorial latitudes. An estimated quarter of the ice present on Kilimanjaro in 2000 has gone. A secondary cause is deforestation of the mountain slopes, leading to changes in local cloud cover, precipitation and snowfall. The Tanzanian government is doing its best to address this problem through reforestation, but on its own it can do nothing to stop global climate change. According to some estimates the snows of Kilimanjaro could have vanished completely by 2030.

And that would be a real tragedy. What would it say about us if future generations could no longer see the snows of Kilimanjaro, not because of persistent cloud cover, but because they no longer exist?

Further reading

  • Kaser, Georg, Douglas R Hardy, Thomas Mőlg, Raymond Bradley and Tharsis M Hyera (2004) “Modern glacier retreat on Kilimanjaro as evidence of climate change: observation and facts: observation and facts”, International Journal of Climatology 24: 329-339.   
  • Thompson, Lonnie G, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Mary E. Davis, Keith A. Henderson, Henry H. Brecher, Victor S. Zagorodnov, Tracy A. Mashiotta, Ping-Nan Lin, Vladimir N. Mikhalenko, Douglas R. Hardy, Jürg Beer (2002) “Kilimanjaro ice core records: Evidence of Holocene climate change in tropical Africa”, Science 298: 589-593.
  • Check out my publications at The Open University’s Open Resources Online website.
 

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