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Spring 2004



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Around the Pond

The Vanishing Snows of Kilimanjaro
Will climate change forever alter the legendary African peak?

-Charles Creekmore ’95

Mt. Kilimanjaro
Now you see it: At the current rate of retreat, Kili’s glaciers could disappear within two decades.
KILIMANJARO, AFRICA'S HIGHEST PEAK, MEANS “Mountain of Greatness” in Swahili. In his 1938 literary classic, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway wrote that Kilimanjaro was “wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun.”

But Kili, as locals affectionately refer to the mountain, isn’t so white anymore. Since the 1880s, the area covered by its glaciers has shrunk by an alarming 80 percent, from about 20 square kilometers (a quarter the size of Manhattan) to just 2.6 km, or about one square mile. Kili’s ice cap could disappear completely within a few decades, according to geosciences researcher Doug Hardy ’95G.

For Hardy, mountain glaciers are becoming his natural element. His mission atop the 19,000-foot peak is to measure current weather conditions and use the data to help interpret the 11,700-year-old climate record stored in ice cores drilled from Kilimanjaro’s glaciers.

Hardy collects data using an automated weather station that he and a team of researchers installed atop Kili four years ago. The station sends a regular stream of data back to Amherst, recording Kili’s air temperature, humidity, incoming solar radiation, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and changes in the thickness of its ice cap. “Though February is usually a dry month on the mountain, several significant snow storms this year brought much-needed accumulation,” says Hardy. The National Science Foundation recently awarded his team a grant to continue its study for three more years. He returns to Africa in June to check on the weather station.

Hardy’s research shows that Kili’s glaciers aren’t retreating in the typical manner of mountain glaciers around the world. Most glaciers are melting as a result of manmade atmospheric warming. By contrast, Kili’s glaciers are probably receding due to a more indirect greenhouse effect: local changes in humidity and wind circulation that seem to be different from those of the last 11,700 years. The prime suspect for the cause of these changes is global warming.

Hardy’s work created quite a stir after it revealed that Kili’s cap lost nearly a meter of surface ice in one (possibly atypical) year of measurements. His data provide further evidence that climate change is creating a global recession of sorts.
“Glaciers around the world are receding,” says Hardy. “In virtually all cases, though somewhat less directly on Kilimanjaro, evidence of the physical mechanism that ties this retreat to increased atmospheric temperatures is really very sound.”

Kili, located just south of the Kenya-Tanzania border, is the most breathtaking geographic feature in Africa and a huge tourist attraction, climbed by 5,000 people a year. Inspiration to countless poets and dreamers, the mountain now has a new claim to fame.

“Kilimanjaro is becoming a visible icon of global warming,” says Hardy, “and loss of glacial ice.”

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