Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The retreat of Kilimanjaro snow . . .

It is a glorious mountain rising up out of glorious country.

Jacob Mayiani, currently a student at James Madison University, grew up at  the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. He sent me the following account of what's happening in his homeland of Kenya as, he believes, the combined result of global warming and bad agricultural practice.
I was born and brought up in Loitokitok a small town located in the southwest of Kenya near the border between Kenya and Tanzania. I have watched the shining snow of the world's highest freestanding, snow-covered mountain retreat over the years.
In the last two decades, this region has experienced unusual weather conditions that most can’t explain. I remember when I was about 8 years old, I woke up every morning ready to walk to school (Nkama Primary School) and the first thing I saw as I placed my foot at the doorstep were the clouds as they cleared to reveal a glimpse of the towering peaks of Kilimanjaro, snow-covered and glinting in the sun.
Besides the glacial recession on the peaks of Kilimanjaro, other major ecological changes in the region include drying up of water catchment areas. About 5 streams in Loitokitok area alone, that I personally know by name and that ran down from Kilimanjaro, have dried up over the last 15 years. This has led to people who depended on those streams to think that it’s their Tanzanian neighbors that are over-using the water, leading to increased tension as all scramble for this rare commodity.
Several years ago when weather conditions appeared normal (when local people cultivated and harvested their crops), the change in the glaciers appeared less important to most of them. However, it wasn’t too long until the precipitation pattern took a different course, forcing them to be concerned. The fertile volcanic soil accompanied by high relief rainfall has made the Kilimanjaro environment one of most productive regions in TZ.
The disappearing glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro are evident and real and it’s imperative that we talk about this phenomenon as it is damaging the natural world and is of serious concern to people living around it. There is increasing evidence to indicate the grave impact that these changes and conditions will create.
This summer (2009) I went back to Kenya to visit my family. Words fail to explain the situation that I found for my people, both farmers and cattle herders. There was massive crop failure in the region around Mt. Kilimanjaro from the Kenyan side. Herders, who depend primarily on cattle for their food and income, lost up to 90% of their livestock even though they have moved them hundreds of kilometers to seek pasture and water for their cattle. Several studies have indicated that the increase in global temperature is responsible for retreating glaciers of Mt Kilimanjaro.
It’s hard to explain this cause to local people who do not share an understanding of causes of global warming. The irony of this situation is what ecologist refers to as the cost distribution effect: the fact that the people who are mostly affected by global warming and the climate change effect are the ones who least contribute to it.
Another less conspicuous, but significant cause of change of the weather patterns in the region is the increase, frequency and intensity of fires on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. These fires have led to downward shift of the upper forest line by several hundred meters resulting in drier and warmer climate over the last several decades.
While I was growing up, I witnessed multiple times the forest fires on the lower slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro as a result of human activity, and I remember asking my grandfather repeatedly: "Why is the mountain burning?" The answer never changed: “the honey collectors.” Clearing for agriculture, and forest fires often caused by honey collectors as they smoke bees out of their hives, have greatly reduced the surrounding forests.
The loss of foliage results in less moisture in the atmosphere, leading to reduced cloud cover and precipitation, and increased solar radiation and glacial evaporation. If current climate conditions persist, the legendary glaciers icing the peaks of Africa's highest summit could be gone entirely not too long from now.
It’s about time to look for solutions to reverse the process and save the mystical appearance of Kilimanjaro.

Photographs of Kilimanjaro's disappearing snow.

Jacob says some scientist argue that the fires, and the subsequent defoliation of the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, rival global warming as the strongest human influence on glacial recession. I did some quick web research and couldn't figure this out.

Any scientists out there know anything definitive? Or willing to express an educated opinion?


  1. I will send this story to my husband and ask him to share it with his colleagues working in the climate change area. Perhaps they will have something to say.

    Very poignant story. Thank you, Jacob.

  2. I went to high school in the area where Mayiani grew up. No words can express what is happening and yet to happen as the glacious of the great mountain disappear and its effect to the communities around the mountain.

    The Maasai call Mt Kilimanjaro, Oldoinyo Oibor, meaning the "White Mountain" because of the glaciers. What should we call it now? May be it is time to consider change of name to put the message across so that the world may hear and see that climate change is real. it is not a myth.

    John Kisimir.

  3. I'm a senior at MIT working on a research project for an upcoming Rexhibition at the MIT Museum, Rivers of Ice. The exhibition features works by the mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears, documenting the decline of the glaciers of the greater Himalaya.

    I found a photograph on your website that would fit nicely into a kiosk I'm designing for the exhibit. For the kiosk, I'm looking for maps or images of glacial melting across the globe.

    I am hoping that you can tell me the source for the picture of Kilimanjaro's melting snow so I can contact them for permission.

    Please let me know if you need any further information about the exhibition or about my work on it. We would really appreciate the help and I hope to hear back from you soon.