THE layer of snow covering the summit of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro is rapidly disappearing because of the climate crisis.
Area residents who live at the foothills of the snow-capped mountain have seen it in transition during their lifetimes.
‘Every morning as a child when I took the cows out to graze, I could see the snow, the mountain was so clear back then. There was snow everywhere covering not only the top part of the mountain like it does today, but stretching close to the mid-section,’ 72-year old Stephen Koitalel reminisces.
‘It was a beautiful sight for everyone and people used to pray and hold initiation ceremonies such as circumcision and weddings while facing the mountain. Nowadays, the snow is thin, barely visible, it used to be a huge chunk of white snow. I don’t know what happened to the snow but it just disappeared.’
Lekumok Lakamai, a 53-year-old nomadic herder from the Entonet area of Kajiado County, echoes those sentiments. ‘When growing up, my parents used to tell me that there was so much snow on the mountain, even our grandparents told us folk stories based on the mountains passed down from generation to generation. We can’t tell our kids such stories today because there is no snow to talk about,’ he says.
Indeed, the dormant volcano has been losing snow from its peaks at a steady pace. A 2013 article published by the European Geosciences Union notes that ‘The glaciers have retreated from their former extent of 11.40 km2 in 1912 to 1.76 km2 in 2011, which represents a total loss of about 85% of the ice cover over the last 100 [years].’
Another article, from 2009, published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), documents the ice cover loss: ‘Summit ice cover (areal extent) decreased ≈1% per year from 1912 to 1953 and ≈2.5% per year from 1989 to 2007. Of the ice cover present in 1912, 85% has disappeared and 26% of that present in 2000 is now gone.’
The authors of the PNAS article note that ‘The three remaining ice fields on the plateau and the slopes are both shrinking laterally and rapidly thinning,’ and warn that ‘If current climatological conditions are sustained, the ice fields atop Kilimanjaro and on its flanks will likely disappear within several decades.’
The UN has warned that rising temperatures are leading to the disappearance of glaciers found on only three mountains in Africa –– Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Rwenzori Mountains –– which are expected to melt entirely in the near future.
In the State of the Climate in Africa 2020 report published by World Meteorological Organisation last month, scientists suggest that ‘If current retreat rates prevail, the African mountains will be deglaciated by the 2040s,’ adding that ‘Mount Kenya is likely to be deglaciated a decade sooner, which will make it one of the first entire mountain ranges to lose glaciers due to anthropogenic climate change.’
Melting snow forms wetlands, attracting flamingos
Dr. Patrick Omondi, chief executive officer of Wildlife Research and Training Institute in Kenya says the melting snow has turned a large area of the 151 square miles (392 square kilometers) Amboseli National Park into a wetland.
He adds that the melting of the Kilimanjaro glacier has had positive and negative effects. On the Kenyan side, the results have been positive.
‘It is positive because Amboseli was not originally a wetland area. The melting glaciers now have filtered through and created swamps. Amboseli has now become a new bird paradise, we have birds like flamingos, which we used not to have here before and we are actually thinking of naming Amboseli as one of the international wetlands of importance,’ comments the top Kenyan researcher.
The drastic climatic change has brought the pink-feathered birds that stand on impossibly thin legs to Amboseli where there is abundant food in swamps. According to scientists, snow forms on Kilimanjaro and immediately melts because of the warm temperature. The cycle forms an uninterrupted supply of underground water that flows down the mountain to the park.
‘These swamps serve the local communities occasionally, when they come to give water to their animals when the drought is high, and like now, when the drought is here, this is a permanent water source, so it has helped,’ says Omondi.
Despite a severe drought in that part of Kenya, park life is thriving with water and swampy grasslands everywhere. Elephants can be seen wallowing in the mud and other animals like zebras and wildebeests feeding on pasture.
The melting Kilimanjaro has positive effects on the Kenyan side but devastating effects in Tanzania.
In Loitokitok, on the Kenyan side, residents complain of low water levels.
‘The melting of the mountain on the other side is not very good. There are high temperatures that come with droughts meaning animals disperse wide and far and it escalates human-wildlife conflict,’ explains Omondi.
Paleo-climatologists have warned that melting glaciers will lead to fewer water resources for communities living around the mountain, especially on the Tanzanian side. Streams and rivers originating from the mountain have either dried up or have lower volumes of water.
The WMO report notes that this is to be expected, yet adds that the glaciers are significant for other reasons: ‘Although these glaciers [the Mount Kenya massif (Kenya), the Rwenzori Mountains (Uganda) and Mount Kilimanjaro (United Republic of Tanzania)] are too small to act as significant water reservoirs, they are of eminent touristic and scientific importance.’
Kenya Wildlife Service Director-General John Waweru says that two lakes have formed in Amboseli due to global warming.
‘The water that is in the Amboseli system is water that actually comes from Mount Kilimanjaro through underground rivers. We have noticed that there are two lakes that are now forming which have not been named yet, but of course, there is a plan to name them in the near future,’ he says.