Wednesday, November 29, 2023

East Africa’s iconic mountains are losing their snow

By Jason Patinkin, DPA - Nairobi (dpa) - When Kenyan mountaineer Nikunj Shah first climbed Mount Kenya as an 18-year-old in 1989, he and his friends strapped plastic bags to their boots to keep their feet dry as they crossed a glacier on the way to the 5,199-metre peak.

Since then, Shah has gone up Africa's second-highest mountain after Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania 52 more times, making him one of the mountain's most experienced climbers.

Shah - a trustee with the 65-year-old Mountain Club of Kenya - has today better gear for his two annual climbs, but he no longer needs to worry about snow filling his boots.

The glaciers Kenyans have looked at in wonder for millennia are disappearing as a result of climate change.

"In the late 1980s and early 90s, 90 per cent of the walk [above the high camp] was in the snow," Shah says. "But you don't walk on snow any more. You use the [rock] ridge."

The white caps of Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro and Uganda's Ruwenzori mountain range are national icons, with images of black peaks dabbled with white snow being shown on bank notes and beer bottles. The mountains earn the three countries millions of dollars from the tens of thousands of tourists who climb them each year.

The tourism industry fears that if the snow goes, so will the tourists.

Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro could "all disappear," says Keith Alverson, head of climate change adaptation and terrestrial ecosystems at the United Nations' Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi.

Eight of Mount Kenya's 18 original glaciers are already gone. The largest remaining one, the Lewis Glacier, has decreased in volume by 90 per cent since 1934, according to a 2011 study by Innsbruck University.

The ice cap atop the 5,895-metre Mount Kilimanjaro measures less than 2 square kilometres, according to a 2009 study by two US universities, compared to 20 square kilometres measured by German explorers in the 1880s.

Forecasts show Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro could be without ice in a decade.

Mountain climbers like Shah need no climate models or satellite imagery to know that the snow is melting. "I have seen the glaciers recede with my own eyes," he says.

Shah says he first noticed the trend on the Lewis Glacier in 2008, when he went up Mount Kenya's western route after a heavy storm and saw a large rock formation poking through what had previously been an unbroken plain of snow.

"I was shocked," Shah says. "The second thought that came to mind was, we need to get a lot of people out here to see this snow on the Equator before it disappears."

Shah has also climbed the Kilimanjaro five times and reports a similar glacier retreat there. Similar phenomena have been observed in the Ruwenzori, according to local media reports.

Some of Mount Kenya's wonders are already gone, such as an ice cave and a frozen field, which have been reduced to a pond of water. Scientists disagree on whether the primary driver of the glacier recession is direct melting from rising temperatures or increased evaporation due to changing weather and precipitation patterns.

"In either case, it is related to the climate change that humans are causing," Alverson says.

The disappearing glaciers are more than an aesthetic loss and a potential threat to tourism, which accounts for about 12 per cent gross domestic product in easch of Kenya and Tanzania. Millions of farmers also depend on water from Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro.

"If [the glaciers] melt, there is actually more water coming down and people will develop more agriculture. But if it goes away entirely, [farms] will be just rain-fed, and that is more erratic and unreliable," Alverson says.

The mountains also feed some of Africa's top game reserves, such as Kenya's Amboseli National Park near the Tanzanian border, where herds of elephants splash in cold water running down from the Kilimanjaro, which rises in the background.

"That is a local ecosystem that could be devastated," Alverson says.

There is little that can be done to save the glaciers short of drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

Shah, who calls Mount Kenya his "second home," says he will continue climbing it, with or without snow.

"It is sad," he says. "The world will lose … the awe-inspiring beauty of the mountains in East Africa.

"After the glaciers disappear, there might be a different kind of beauty. But definitely not a black and white beauty."


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Healthy ecosystems deliver critical goods and services, such as providing food and fuel, or preventing floods and soil erosion. People depend on these goods and services for their wellbeing and livelihoods. However, because of climate change and other human impacts, many ecosystems have become degraded, with negative impacts on people’s lives. EBA involves the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall adaptation strategy to help people adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change.readmore

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