What you need to know:
- The United Nations says glacial loss on East Africa’s mountains began in the 1880s as a result of declining precipitation and less cloudiness, leading to higher solar radiation. Studies of the Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya, for instance, found that higher temperatures during the 1900s were a greater cause of its shrinking than sun exposure, but gradual warming during the 20th century and associated rises in atmospheric humidity, along with a possible contribution of continued solar radiation, accelerated the mountain’s recent ice losses
Hundreds of articles have been written about it, thousands of theories formulated around it, and millions of shillings spent studying it. And now the evidence is out: the glaciers on the roofs of East Africa’s highest mountains are shrinking at an alarming rate, putting into jeopardy the economies that thrive around them and the livelihoods of people hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres away.
Studies show that Mts Kenya in Kenya, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Ruwenzori in Uganda are not as cold at the top as they were barely half a century ago, meaning the spectre of ice on the equator could soon be no more.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep), in collaboration with environmental experts, spent months studying the receding patterns of the glaciers of these peaks, and now warns that, other than the agricultural and drainage effects they may have on the communities downstream, they could also heavily affect tourism, a major economic earner especially in Kenya and Tanzania.
Tanzania received 945,794 tourists in 2012 while the number of international tourist arrivals in Kenya stood at 1.7 million during the same period. But, despite hosting more tourists than Tanzania over the same period, Kenya only earned slightly above Sh96 billion in foreign revenue while Tanzania pocketed Sh109.3 billion.
Most of these billions could be wiped out if the region does not employ mitigating measures against global warming and other environmental impacts, experts now warn.
“Policies will need to address how to adapt to these impacts as they promote economic development without increasing fossil fuel dependency and using inefficient technologies,” the UN study advises.
Scientists believe Africa’s glaciers began to recede in the 1880s, and that, between 1906 and 2006, these three mountains lost about 82 per cent of their total ice area as larger glaciers became fragmented.
Mr Godfrey Onyango, an environmental scientist, forecasts a bleak economic future for the region if nothing is done to reverse this trend, arguing that dry mountain peaks would not only negatively affect the tourism sector, but also agriculture, electricity generation and the economy in general.
“Communities living around the mountains would be hard hit because the mountains play a very important role in regulating the climate of the surrounding areas through relief rainfall and balancing of the ecosystem,” he says.
Glaciers are an important source of the planet’s fresh water; they store and release it seasonally, replenishing the rivers and ground waters that provide people and ecosystems with life-sustaining produce all year round. “Melting glaciers will affect agriculture, domestic supplies, hydroelectricity and industry in the lowlands and cities far from the mountains,” the study warns.
Prof Bancy Mati, a lecturer in water management at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, says if glaciers on the three peaks dry up, the possibility of rivers having little or no flows during the dry season is even greater, resulting in declining water availability for communities downstream.
Glaciers, acting as mammoth natural reservoirs, preserve water up a mountain then slowly release it through melting during the dry season, replenishing life down rivers all the way to the open seas and oceans.
Mr Onyango says one of the possible mitigating measures against climate change is control of population growth, which is the main driver of consumption of resources and conflict over the same.
“Other measures include crafting laws that regulate consumption of resources, control of emission of greenhouse gases by legislation, encouraging more carbon trading and reducing encroachment of forest areas,” he adds.
Regardless of the relative contributions the different causes make to the shrinking glaciers, if present climatic conditions continue, the African glaciers will disappear within several decades. For instance, only 10 of the 18 glaciers that covered Mt Kenya’s summit a century ago remain, leaving less than one third of the previous ice cover.
“The ice on Mt Kenya has also become thinner,” the study reports. “Emerging evidence suggests the decline has accelerated since the 1970s.”
As scientists and policy makers scratch their heads over what to do, communities living around the three East African mountains have already started experiencing the effects of the ‘meltdown’ high up in the clouds. Mr Faris Mtui, a resident of Marangu-Mbahe village in Moshi, a bustling town at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, is one of them.
“We have noted not just changing weather patterns,” he says, “but also changing environments. Some of the plants found around here about 30 years ago are no more while a number of springs and waterfalls in our village have dried up.”
Mr Mtui, who is also a tour guide on Mt Kilimanjaro, says some of the waterfalls that have dried up in his native region include, Monjo, Kona and Kipungulu.
“The red cabbage, a medicinal plant that villagers around this mountain used to treat fractures with in the 1970s, has also disappeared, followed by tens of other plants,” he says, adding that in the 1970s and 1980s there used to be regular snow falls in the villages around Mt Kilimanjaro, “but today there is none of that”.
“The change in weather patterns is also worryingly evident,” Mr Mtui says. “For example, while in the months of June in the 1970s we used to burn grass in our farms — because it was sunny — in preparation of the planting season, today it rains heavily in June.”
The United Nations says glacial loss on East Africa’s mountains began in the 1880s as a result of declining precipitation and less cloudiness, leading to higher solar radiation.
Studies of the Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya, for instance, found that higher temperatures during the 1900s were a greater cause of its shrinking than sun exposure, but gradual warming during the 20th century and associated rises in atmospheric humidity, along with a possible contribution of continued solar radiation, accelerated the mountain’s recent ice losses.
This story was jointly sponsored by the Nation Media Group and the Forum for African Investigative Reporters through the SIDA programme.
vanish in the next decade.
How its all started...
MY INTEREST in diminishing glaciers on mountains in East Africa started in 2009 through an initiative by the Nation Media Group to raise funds for millions facing hunger in Kenya. When I enlisted to join a team of volunteers who had decided to fundraise by climbing Mt Kenya, I knew not what lay ahead of me.
And so, after about four days of absolute toil, I stood up atop a peak on Mt Kenya and beheld the undulating landscape that stretched from my feet, down to those of the majestic mountain, and on and on and on, forever. Something, however, was amiss. This place was not as white as I had seen on pictures. Where could the glaciers have gone?
I posed that question to my guide, a man who has literally lived on the mountain for years by guiding tourists up and down. As if on cue, the man, whose name I only remember as Munuhe, embarked on an environmental preachment binge, lamenting how the glaciers up this mountain were “melting at and alarming rate” yet no one was taking note of the disturbing phenomenon.
I climbed down that mountain with more questions than I had when I first started the trek up, and so, back in Nairobi, I decided to research deeper into the subject of disappearing ice on the equator. It was only natural, then, that when the NMG initiative called for volunteers to scale Kilimanjaro, I hopped onto the bandwagon.
This time, though, I was not just a philanthropist, but a researcher as well. I studied every aspect of this beautiful mountain that is the perfect image of a postcard from Tanzania, and developed the same overwhelming sense of despair as I had atop Mt Kenya months earlier.
Mzee Arusha, a tour guide named after a Tanzanian town on the shadows of the mountain, spelt it out for me; the glaciers were thinning away and, like Kenya, no one was doing anything about it.
So, apart from Mt Kenya, the ice on top of Africa’s peak was also disappearing. What was happening?
The opportunity to answer that question came to me during a forum organised by the Forum for African Investigative Journalists (Fair) in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2011.
I shared my concerns with fellow writers and they encouraged me to keep studying the peaks of East Africa and see whether I could come up with anything. So I applied for, and got, a grant from Fair, and from there things started falling in place.
... and how the mountains fare
Mount Kenya straddles the equator 193 kilometres northeast of Nairobi and about 480 kilometres from the Kenyan coast. At 5,199 metres above sea level, the mountain is Africa’s second-highest peak, the remnant of a large volcano whose diameter from north-to-south is 100 kilometres (slightly larger than its west-to-east axis).
Its ice cap is composed of 10 glaciers that occupy the valleys of this very dissected mountain that attracts thousands of climbers every year. The numbers tell it all: in 2009, some 25,000 people visited Mount Kenya National Park. Sadly, however, only 10 of the 18 glaciers that covered Mt Kenya’s summit a century ago remain, leaving less than one third of the previous ice cover.
The Ruwenzori Massif
The Ruwenzori Massif, at 5,109 metres above sea level, and also popularly known as the ‘Mountains of the Moon’, is a 50-kilometre-wide block of mountains that rises between two faults in the earth’s crust to straddle the Uganda-DRC border, and has a total area of 3,000 square kilometres.
The range is heavily dissected into valleys and individual mountains that run about 100 kilometres northwestwards from the Equator. The range’s central portion contains 25 peaks over 4,500 metres above sea level, the highest of which is the Margherita peak on Mount Stanley, which exceeds 5,000 metres above sea level.
The Ruwenzori glaciers occur on only three of the range’s peaks: Mounts Stanley, Speke and Baker. In the early 1990s, the total glaciated area was about five square kilometres.
Mount Kilimanjaro is 5,895 metres high and is located in northern Tanzania, 300 kilometres south of the Equator. The highest mountain in Africa and the world’s highest free-standing mountain consists of three volcanoes: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira.
Since at least the 1880s, the ice on its peak has been thinning both in thickness and area, with the latter’s decline being the most dramatic. Compared to 1800, when the ice covered about 20 square kilometres, by 2003, the area had shrunk to about two and half square kilometres.
That means an estimated 82 per cent of the ice cap that crowned the mountain when it was first thoroughly surveyed in 1912 is now gone... and the remaining ice is thinning as well, by as much as a metre per year in one area.
According to some projections, if recession continues at the present rate, the majority of the remaining glaciers on Kilimanjaro could vanish in the next decade.