Kilimanjaro's melting cap

Posted: 18 April 2001

Mount Kilimanjaro has lost one third of its ice fields in the last two decades and the rest of its ice could disappear by 2015, says American scientist, Professor Lonnie Thompson.

Situated in northeastern Tanzania, near the Kenya border, 5,895 metres (19,340 feet) Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa. Now the future of the snow and ice that makes Kilimanjaro one of the African continent's most recognised landmarks appears to be in doubt.

The eminent scientist, of Ohio State University, who has made an aerial survey of the peak said the disappearance of the mountain's ice fields will affect drinking water supply, agriculture and hydroelectric production. As Tanzania's top visitor attraction, drawing 20,000 tourists a year, the country's foreign currency earnings will also be hit.

For more than two decades, Thompson and others have been researching ancient climates by studying tropical ice fields around the world. Most predictions of global climate change suggest that early signs of warming will be seen at high elevations where these ice caps exist.

Thompson said his survey, compared with previous mapping shows 33 per cent of Kilimanjaro's ice has disappeared since 1980. Since 1912, 82 per cent of the ice has gone. "I think there is a real possibility that ice will be gone by 2015," he said. Thompson bases his estimates on the Earth continuing to warm at an accelerated rate, rising by 1.4 to 6 degrees over the next 100 years, as predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change.

Thompson has also warned of glacial retreats in other parts of the world. The Quelccaya ice cap in the Peruvian Andes has shrunk by 20 per cent since 1963 and the retreat of its largest glacier, Qori Kalis, has accelerated by 155 metres (509 feet) per year in the most recent survey. A previous survey from 1995 to 1998, showed the rate of retreat at 48 metres (157 feet) per year.

"The glaciers are like natural dams," he said. "They store the snow in the wet season and they melt in the dry season and bring water flow to the rivers."

Source: Environment News Service, February, 2001.