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Goodbye, snows of Kilimanjaro

The most recent survey among the ice fields atop Mount Kilimanjaro found that the ice atop Africa’s most famous mountain could be gone in twenty years—and maybe even sooner.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science the study was conducted by a team of researchers who first measured the glaciers in 2000. They discovered that between 1912 and 2007, 85 percent of the ice that covered Mount Kilimanjaro vanished. When using 2000 as baseline the mountain has lost 26 percent of its ice.

These findings are unique in the last 11,700 years: an ice core going back nearly twelve millennia found no evidence of sustained melting until contemporary times. Even a 300-year-long drought 4,200 years ago, which left Mount Kilimanjaro blanketed in 1-inch thick dust, did not lead to any melting.

This is one of a growing number of isolated remnants of ice spires that were once full glaciers in the crater of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Photo by: Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University.

Perhaps most surprising was the discovery that the loss of ice by thinning is now almost equal to the loss of ice by shrinking.

“This is the first time researchers have calculated the volume of ice lost from the mountain’s ice fields,” said Paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson, a research scientist with Ohio State’s Byrd Polar Research Center. “If you look at the percentage of volume lost since 2000 versus the percentage of area lost as the ice fields shrink, the numbers are very close.”

Furtwängler Glacier atop the mountain has melted 50 percent from 2000 to 2009.

“It has lost half of its thickness,” Thompson explained. “In the future, there will be a year when Furtwängler is present and by the next year, it will have disappeared . The whole thing will be gone!”

While cloudiness and changes in precipitation could be playing a role in the melting, it was relatively minor compared to that of rising temperatures, according to the study. The scientists believe that their findings—along with studies of other African glaciers and tropical glaciers melting worldwide—are dramatic evidence of climate change.

Along with retreat of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers at their margins, the surface of these massive ice fields have begun eroding as temperatures rise. Photo by: Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University.

“The fact that so many glaciers throughout the tropics and subtropics are showing similar responses suggests an underlying common cause. The increase of Earth’s near surface temperatures, coupled with even greater increases in the mid- to upper-tropical troposphere, as documented in recent decades, would at least partially explain the observed widespread similarity in glacier behavior,” Thompson said.

Mount Kilimanjaro is both Tanzania’s and Africa’s tallest mountain rising 5,895 meters (19,336 feet) in the air. Since it rises largely from the African plains, it is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

One of Ernest Hemingway’s most famous stories is entitled “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”.

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