Kilimanjaro's Melting Glaciers

Mount Kilimanjaro
Mt. Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are melting away

Editor’s Note: Did human-built cars and generators and heaters make the gas that warmed the air and melted the ice? Or is it just a coincidence of geologic and climatological fluctuations that we arrive at this tipping point? Or is it a tipping point, or just a nudge? One thing is sure, now in the fall of 2005, the earth is warming, the northern icecap is melting away, as are the glaciers of the world.

Who’s to say if the entire northern icecap melts away, all that newly-melted fresh water at the pole might not divert away the northern flowing tropical gulf stream, and plunge Europe into an ice age? And if the 840,000 square miles of Greenland’s two mile thick icecap melts into planet earth’s 130 million square miles of ocean – won’t it raise sea levels by 20 feet? How’s Greenland’s icecap doing, anyway? God help us if Antartica’s 5.4 million square miles of icecap ever were to melt.

What would motivate virtually every scientist in the world to agree that the earth is warming, and that burning fossil fuels is accelerating this phenomenon? And does it matter anyway, whether or not the earth returns to normal, or never stopped being normal, if while fighting the warming we would develop renewable and geo-politically independent energy? Can high-technology help? Yes. Capitalism? Of course.

No matter what, energy consumption in the world must increase. Even if the BTU per GNP ratio in the world (British Thermal Units of energy per unit of Gross National Product) were to become more efficient than ever, for developing countries like China, India, and the rest of the world to economically develop to somewhere near the standards of living of the USA, Europe, and much of Asia, total energy production in the world will have to increase by 50%, to 600 quadrillion BTUs per year. Is nuclear energy part of the solution to power the economy while cooling the world?

Ed “Redwood” Ring

Approaching Kilimanjaro Summit
Approaching the Kilimanjaro summits

“Hot tea and biscuits,”

came the muted voice from outside my tent. The time was a little past midnight, but yet it didn’t wake me, as I hadn’t slept a wink since first settling in to my sleeping bag five hours prior to this moment. My excitement and anxiousness prevented me from dropping off into unconciousness.

But any notion of sleeping anyway was negated by the fact that my tent was pitched on a surface of broken rocks at the debilitating altitude of 16,000 feet. In addition, feet-numbing cold embraced the air, as well as the incessant washing sound of the wind as it blew up from the warmer elevations of southern Tanzania, which lay in an inky darkness below.

It was time to rouse myself from the relative warmth of my bag and get dressed. It was time to climb! Summit day on Kilimanjaro comes early, as it often does on the high peaks of the world.

I had come here to east Africa to climb Kilimanjaro – a lifelong dream of mine – with a sense of urgency. Its famed glaciers are melting, and if the scientists are to be believed, these stunning features on an equally stunning and fantastic mountain will be gone in 15-20 years. I wanted to see them glistening in the sun while they are still with us, both from the wildlife-rich plains below and from above on the roof top of Africa.

Cheetah with Cubs
Mama Cheetah and her five cubs look on

Since Kilimanjaro is a seven-summits peak, in the middle of an exotic utopia of wild animals and strange people with strange customs, the mountain is a focus for many people – suburbanite trekkers just happy to be there, armchair mountaineers with little actual experience, weekend warriors for whom Kilimanjaro will be their biggest life prize, and a small number of “hardcores” who are gunning for every big peak in the world.

If you go to Kilimanjaro and Tanzania expecting to find a nice wilderness experience on a giant exotic mountain in an Eden of savages and wild things, then think again. This isn’t the Kilimanjaro of Hemingway and Livingstone. But it’s definitely a grand life adventure in a world becoming increasing bereft of it.

As I exited the tent, I was greeted by the night-time firmament dotted and pierced by innumerable pinpricks of light. The starry constellations formed an ethereal panorama and served as a welcome foreboding of good things to come. My small climbing team, comprised of a 33 year old computer programmer named Sean from Calgary and Katherine, a 31 year old marketing executive from London, led by our stout guide John Minja, began our final 3,000 foot push to the summit via the Western Breach, Kili’s hardest non-technical route. The Breach is a large pile of scree and stone, punctuated by bands of cliffs, and being guided by headlamps, we picked our way through the rubble and made progress towards the crater rim at 18,000 feet. This was our 6th day on the mountain, and we were honed in on putting one step in front of the other in the slow manner of pole pole.

“Pole pole” is the most ubiquitous phrase on the mountain, and you hear it mentioned from the moment you step foot at the trailhead to within the last 100 feet of the top. It means “go slowly” in Swahili, and while one grows indifferent to hearing it spring from the lips of your guides every hour or so as you speed up the trail, it really does make a difference on summit day. Not that the altitude gives you much of a choice. It limits you to taking a few small steps at a time and then stopping for a mandatory gulp of air that is harder to come by the higher up you go. Half way up the rocky amphitheatre, our water bottles froze, leaving us thirsting in the deprived early morning air. Bright shooting stars flamed across the sky, some leaving long contrails marking their passage. Six hours of “pole pole later, we crested the crater rim almost to the minute that the sun crested the eastern horizon,

Acacia Trees in Africa
African Acacia Trees

Kilimanjaro is a voluptuous upheaval of rock and forest, accentuated by its gleaming white equatorial ice. Found snaking up and around its imposing dome are eight major trekking routes, but only three that lead to the summit, with most routes requiring 6-7 days to complete the climb. I chose arguably the most scenic – the Machame Route on Kili’s southern slopes. Kilimanjaro is unique in that due to its proximity to the equator, only 200 miles south of its bulging line, one travels thru all of the world’s climatic zones – it’s akin to experiencing all four seasons on a single climb.

The first white man to lay eyes on the mountain in 1849 – a Christian missionary by the name of Johann Rebmann couldn’t believe that he was seeing snow so close to the equator, and when he reported the spectacle back home in England, he was ostracized as crazy and delusional. The trail starts at roughly 7,000 feet in thick and lush rainforest and progresses up thru scant heather, sparse moorland, dry alpine desert and finally reaching arctic, icy conditions at the summit. We were doing the Western Breach variation of the Machame Route, which splits from the regular route near Lava Tower Camp two-thirds of the way up the mountain.

Kili’s glaciers flow from its summit like an elegant bridal veil, but they are quickly disintegrating under the African sun. Snowfall during the rainy season isn’t keeping pace with the melting that occurs during the dry season, and this lack of replenishment is taking its toll. Many scientists attribute this phenomenon to global warming. There is not a single place on earth, be it the rugged grandeur of the Alps, the vast Amazon Basin, the glacial fjords of Alaska or here in east Africa that is immune. With the recent devastation and increased ferocity of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean being attributed to global warming, climate change has the potential to drastically alter the way we live.

On Kilimanjaro, global warming affects not only the aesthetic beauty of the mountain, but also the livelihood of its local people who have lived and farmed on its lower slopes for hundreds of years. According to John Minja, a long-time guide and porter on the mountain, the shrinking glaciers means less snowmelt, which affects irrigation that is needed to water coffee plantations and gardens that provide cash crops, income, and food for local consumption. Even some of the major rivers tumbling down from the summit, such as the Umbwe, which used to run year-round, are now sometimes dry during certain times of the season.

Children in Tanzania
Young faces of Tanzania

One native Chagga tribe member, Mr. John Minja, who was born and grew up in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, and who has been guiding on the mountain for seven years, indicates that within the past five years, he began noticing the glaciers visibly disappearing at an alarming rate. He has heard that in the past 50 years, the mountain has lost a third of its glacial ice.

Mr. Minja doesn’t know how losing the glaciers will affect the local tourism industry on Kilimanjaro, but he thinks tourism in general in Tanzania is good, as it creates jobs, contributes to the preservation of wildlife, increases education to the locals who live and work in the major tourism centers, and demands better management efficiency from park service managers and planners. Whether or not global warming is caused by human practices or just a part of the natural cycle of the planet is highly debatable, but regardless, the “eternal snows of Kilimanjaro” that Hemingway spoke so eloquently of are now just a few years away from disappearing altogether.

The sun rising up behind Kili’s eastern shoulder cast a spell on us. Sunrise from 18,000 feet is a wonderous spectacle, and we witnessed Kilimanjaro’s pyramidal shadow spread across the skirted clouds below. The three-story-high sheer face of the Furtwangler Glacier appeared instantly as we crested the volcanic rim. It’s an odd feature – a giant piece of ice sitting squarely on dirt. At one time not long ago, its translucent fingers spilled down the Western Breach, grabbing at solidified lava, but now it is just an oddly shaped chunk of shrinking ice sitting on the periphery of the crater. Two years ago a large section of this frozen mass caved in, accelerating its pending demise. This was the catalyst that spurred me to action.

Furtwangler Glacier
The author stands next to the Furtwangler glacier

I had to go to Kilimanjaro soon to behold this ice cube before the last of its ice melted and flowed downstream, ending up as irrigation water for cultivated coffee plantations in Moshi township. And here I was now, touching it, feeling its surface, knowing that Kilimanjaro’s glaciers, for the time being, are holding on to existence.

The trudge up the remaining 800 feet of scree was a challenge, done with legs that felt like lead pipes and a brain clouded in drunken stupor. At the summit, the famous sign was limping and covered with bumper stickers. All of us were dazed and filled with a quiet sense of achievement. At that altitude, all I was thinking about was getting down to lower altitudes to relieve a pounding headache. The sun was shining, but at that moment, at the apex of the biggest adventure of my life, I was dreaming not of melting glaciers and over-crowding, but instead was lost in a daydream of the tropical white sands and coconut palms of Zanzibar.

How long the glaciers of Kilimanjaro continue to paint the summit with heavenly white is a question that should concern us all. Not because the mountain’s terrific height has been written about in descriptive narratives and dreamed about by countless adventurers, but because it’s a harbinger of greater environmental devastation looming on the horizon in a changing world of gas-guzzling automobiles and a society dominated by industrial progress. But at what price? The loss of Africa’s ethereal glaciers for one.

Dan Hall is a photo-journalist living in Sacramento, California


- World Data Center for Paleoclimatology

- Kilimanjaro Data from University of Massachusetts Geosciences

- United Nations Environmental Program – Kilimanjaro Data

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