Glaciers on Kilimanjaro Are Shrinking and Could Be Gone by 2030

Kilimanjaro Glaciers during sunrise - Photo Credit: César González Palomo

Kilimanjaro Glaciers during sunrise - Photo Credit: César González Palomo

Written by: Jonathan Lee

If you haven’t heard yet, the majestic 10,000 year old glaciers on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro have been shrinking over the past several decades. At it’s current pace of shrinkage the famed Northern Glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro could be ice free by 2030!

When I first head about the shrinking glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro several years ago, I was told by a friend that it was due to deforestation at the base of the mountain that had somehow caused a chain effect disturbing the local climate. I’ve also heard of the claim that it was due to global warming. Intrigued to learn more about this phenomenon and wanting to dispel any in-accurate information I may have heard, I decided to do my own research on the topic to find out the facts that were out there. If you, like me are interested in this topic below are some answers to the questions that I was curious about.

Are the glaciers really shrinking? As with any assumption, I wanted to make sure first and foremost that the glaciers on Mt. Kilimanjaro were in fact actually shrinking. In this day in age where news travels virally, dis-information spreads easily and I wanted to make sure that this was in fact true. Since 2000 the Northern Ice Field on Mount Kilimanjaro has lost approximately 29% of its volume according to scientist and is continuing its pace of decline. From 1912 to now, the glacier area on Kilimanjaro has decreased from 7.5 sq. miles to less than 1.5 sq. miles.

Kilimanjaro Glacier Map - 1912,

Kilimanjaro Glacier Map - 1912,

NASA satellite image of Mt. Kilimanjaro - 1993 vs. 2000

NASA satellite image of Mt. Kilimanjaro - 1993 vs. 2000

      

The image on the top maps out the Glaciers on Mt. Kilimanjaro and its shrinkage over the decades. On bottom is NASA satellite image of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Why is this happening? There are many assumptions thrown out there regarding the cause of the glacial retreat. Many are quick to point to Global Warming as a cause. However, this is an over simplistic view as there are many other factors that can be affecting the ice retreat on Mount Kilimanjaro. First signs of the glaciers shrinking were reported as early as 1850 when a global phenomenon of glaciers retreating around the world started to take place. This coincides with the end of a mini Ice Age after which temperatures started to gradually rising. Scientist also point out that the loss of glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro has less to do with the melting (more accurately evaporation) of the glaciers and has more to do with the reduced amount of snowfall the mountain has received in recent decades. As I mentioned during the beginning of the post, some researchers believe that local deforestation around Mount Kilimanjaro is changing the local weather patterns causing less moisture in the air and thus less precipitation resulting in snow to occur on the mountain.  While this could have an effect, recent research has shown this to only affect lower elevations.

There is not overall consensus on exactly why this is happening. It could very well be a combination of several of the factors stated above. While the cause for the glacial decline is not certain, it’s very certain that the glaciers are declining and there is a very real possibility that they will be completely non-existent in the next 15-30 years.

What does this all mean? Now that we’ve established that the glaciers are shrinking on Mt. Kilimanjaro and explored some of the possible causes the real question is what this all means for the people of Kilimanjaro and for the wider global community. The glaciers of Mount Kilimanjaro is a key case study displaying the changing dynamics of Earth’s climate as its potential effect. As there is less precipitation as there was before resulting in less snow on the peak of Kilimanjaro, there is also less water to grow crops in the mostly agricultural community surrounding the mountain. This can have an enormous impact on the livelihoods of the individuals and families in the communities surrounding the mountain that depend on the agricultural industry for their food source and income. Since deforestation has shown evidence of affecting the climate and reducing precipitation  at lower elevations, steps should be taken to investigate ways to minimize the disruption of the local climate. Communities should also explore and implement ways to reduce their reliance on the agricultural industry for their livelihoods. 

As a potential visitor to Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro, your days of opportunity to see the glaciers on the Roof of Africa are numbered as the glaciers retreat more and more each year. If you are thinking about visiting, don’t hesitate any longer and make your plans to visit the mountain. While you visit, explore ways to contribute back to the local community. 

Sources:

http://www.pnas.org/content/107/17/E68.full

https://www.americanscientist.org/issues/issue.aspx?id=3752&y=0&no=&content=true&page=3&css=print

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/world/africa/03melt.html?_r=0

http://www.livescience.com/41930-kilimanjaro-glaciers-shrinking.html

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110305112136.htm