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In 2008, I had the opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and jumped at the chance. While I had never been interested in technical mountaineering, Kilimanjaro is a different animal. There is nothing technical about the climbing, it is more of a hike than anything, albeit very steep above the high camp of Barafu. The mountain is equatorial so the weather is less extreme, but you still have to deal with rain, wind, snow, and cold. The main obstacle to overcome is the altitude. At more than 19,000 ft., Mt. Kilimanjaro is a serious undertaking that claims the lives of approximately ten climbers and twenty to thirty porters every year. Of course, almost everyone has some knowledge of the receding glaciers on the mountain and I now had the opportunity to witness them first hand, before they disappear. The whole climb took 7 days/6 nights, with the summit being reached on the 6th morning, after climbing through the night. If you are interested in the climb itself, keep checking back as I hope to have a travelogue slideshow posted in the near future.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano in Northeastern Tanzania and is composed of 3 separate cones; Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. It’s highest point (Uhuru Peak, on the cone of Kibo) is 19,334 ft. (5893 m.) above sea level and is the highest point in Africa. The mountain and surrounding areas were made a national park in 1977 and were designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. While much of Tanzania is known for it’s wildlife, Mount Kilimanjaro was made famous by it’s glaciers, popularized by Ernest Hemingway in his book “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” written in 1936. While the exact cause of the retreating glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro and when/if they will completely disappear is still debated, there is no debate that the glaciers are disappearing at an alarmingly fast rate. In reality, the glaciers on Kilimanjaro have been retreating since the early 1900′s but that retreat has accelerated over the last few decades. Since 1912, more than 80% of the glacial ice has disappeared, with 26% of the loss occurring between 2000 and 2009. Between 1976 and 2000, the Furtwangler Glacier lost almost half of it’s area, going from 113,000 m2 to 60,000 m2. Depressing to think about when one considers that these glaciers have existed for more than 11,000 years.
Tropical glaciers require two environmental conditions; cold, meaning a high altitude in the tropics, and precipitation in the form of snow. The ablation rate is the rate of removal of the ice, and the amount of snow needed to sustain a glacier is dependent on the ablation rate. There are 2 ways a glacier can lose mass and size; through melting (the conversion of ice to water) or through sublimation (the conversion of ice into water vapor), both processes requiring considerable energy. A healthy glacier has 2 major zones, the accumulation zone at higher elevations and an ablation zone at lower elevations. The transition between these two zones is called the equilibrium line altitude. If the equilibrium decreases in altitude, the glacier grows and if it increases the glacier shrinks. If the line increases to the summit, the glacier is in danger of disappearing, as what is happening on Mount Kilimanjaro. The debate concerning the retreating glaciers on Kilimanjaro revolves around the major cause: is it due to increased loss (melting or sublimation) or decreased growth (decreased precipitaion).
It is believed by many that the loss of the Kilimanjaro glaciers is due to melting from increasing temperatures and global warming. Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist from Ohio State University has been to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro multiple times and believes this is the main culprit. Satellite and weather balloon data show a warming trend in the mid-tropospheric level (Kilimanjaro height) over the recent decades in the sub-tropical region, ranging from 0.16-0.2 Co per decade, most likely due to anthropogenic causes. Other researchers aren’t so certain that melting from rising temperatures is the main cause, arguing that melting has a minor effect, if it has any effect at all. Sublimation, the conversion of ice directly to water vapor, and decreased precipitation have also been proposed as major causes in the retreating glacial ice. Kaser et al  argue that the glacial loss is due to decreased precipitation that started in the late 19th century and use the decreasing levels of Lake Victoria as supporting evidence. Others argue that this may have been a factor in the early loss, it doesn’t explain the continued, accelerating loss. They contend that the glaciers have survived for thousands of years, through periods of major drought, so why should this be any different now unless other factors were involved. Some feel that the retreating glaciers are indicative of the general drying out of Eastern Africa. With less cloud cover there is both less precipitation and an increased amount of solar energy present, therefore increasing both melting and sublimation, while at the same decreasing the formation of new ice. As the glaciers retreat, more of the dark volcanic soil is exposed, leading to more absorption of the solar energy. Other proposals, such as those put forth by the Heartland Institute implicate deforestation on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro as the major cause, although this belief is less widely held by most researchers.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was an exhilarating, amazing experience and one I am glad to have completed before the glaciers have disappeared. Seeing the glaciers at the summit, while sitting on Stella Ridge at 19,000 ft., just below the high point on Uhuru Peak, as the sun rose over the cloud layer below was indescribable, a very spiritual experience (no I am not religious, but spiritual is closest word I can think of). At the same time it was a very sobering sight, seeing just how small some of the glaciers are now. Based on all the evidence, it seems most likely to me that the root cause is most likely multifactorial, but how much each cause is contributing to the rapid retreat is still up for debate. What is not up for the debate is that the “Snows of Kilimanjaro” are in rapid retreat and serious risk of disappearing completely.