Science Scoops: Kilimanjaro Snowcap May Melt Soon

When Ernest Hemingway wrote his famous short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in 1938, he probably never considered that the snows might one day disappear. But if scientists are correct, the snows atop the 5,895-meter African mountain could disappear between 2015 and 2020.

What's truly alarming is that recent surveys from satellites and ice core samples show that the mountain has been snowcapped for nearly the last 12,000 years! The snows were deposited during an intense wet period in Earth's history. But according to a research team led by Lonnie G. Thompson (Ohio State University), that wet period actually ended 4,000 years ago, when Africa and other parts of the world slipped into a severe drought. What could cause such a change? The possibilities include volcanic eruptions, a meteor impact, or natural global warming, Thompson says.

There's more. Today, the mountain's snows are melting at an extremely alarming rate—by 80 percent in just the past century. And a temperature rise, measured at about minus 17 degrees Celsius since 2000, is fast eroding the mountain's 45-meter-high ice blocks. While Douglas Hardy, head of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, group that's studying Kilimanjaro's weather, notes that human-caused climate change is at least partly responsible for the melting, he does say that other, presently unknown factors also could be involved. Although the melting could be caused by natural climate changes, Thompson remains cautious: “To me, it's a warning that we should be careful of how far we want to push the system.”

The diminishing ice already has reduced the amount of water that supplies Tanzanian villages and hospitals. The government also fears that a snowless Kilimanjaro would ruin the area's robust tourist industry. Some 20,000 tourists visit the mountain every year, making tourism Tanzania's main source of income.

Activity

  1. What kind of an ecosystem is Mount Kilimanjaro?
  2. What kind of a process is occurring on Mount Kilimanjaro with the melting of the snowcap?
  3. The melting of the snowcap on Mount Kilimanjaro is reducing the amount of water available to villages in Tanzania. How do you think this might be affecting the ecosystems in Tanzania?