Kilimanjaro – are the glaciers vanishing?

by Debra Bouwer

When I first climbed Kilimanjaro with my Dad in 2002, we were told that by 2020, all of the glaciers will be gone. It struck me this morning on my morning run, that we are now IN 2020 and the question is, have all of the glaciers gone.

Tragically, pretty much so.

At the time, my father and I were awestruck at the sheer size and volume of the glaciers, especially the magnificent Furtwangler Glacier. We camped at crater camp taking a walk to the volcanic vent in the early morning of this magnificent shimmering block of ice. Little did we know that progressive photos taken from the same place over the next years would show a different story.

According to reports, glacial melt on Kilimanjaro was around 1% per year from 1912 to 1953. Then it gradually accelerated and by 2007 had jumped to 2.5 percent a year. In fact, since 2000, the plateau’s three remaining ice fields have shrunk by 26 percent. What we need to remember of course, is that when the ice fields of Kilimanjaro were first studied in 1912 they were one. The Northern, Southern and Eastern icefields all joined forming one massive icecap of 11.40 square kilometers. And from this, glacial tendrils flowed off the summit, including Uhlig, Credner, Drygalski, Great and Little Penck glaciers. There were 13 in total, only 4 remnants remain.

I recall with great fondness the image of two fellow climbers we met at Lava Tower, sitting on a rock overshadowed by Little Penk which hung as a crescent moon to the rocks above, “highest we’ve been in our lives” one said…”4600m.”

In the following years I returned with my father, other members of my family and friends, now 7 times to the summit and the glaciers have always been the greatest source of fascination; images of my sister standing in awe at Rebman glacier, my nephew spending hours playing like a teenager around Furtwanger, and … vast spaces of dark crater dust, bleak landscapes, expanses of sand and stone, where towering ice once stood.

It seems according to scientists that there is no long term hope. As the glaciers break up into smaller pieces, more of the dark volcanic dust is exposed causing a warming of surrounding temperatures and constant melting of the ice.

When chatting with my Dad the other day, he asked, “do you think people will still want to climb Kilimanjaro when there are no glaciers left?”

I believe that they will. Kilimanjaro is one of the 7 summits of the world and also one of the 7 highest peaks of Africa. Climbers flock to other peaks like Mt Kenya and Jbel Toubkhal despite a mass of glaciers simply to climb to one of the 7 summits. She also has other claims to her fame. Kilimanjaro is one of the highest free standing mountains, largest volcano and being equatorial, one of the closest points in the world to the sun.

Will I be wrong? Time alone will tell, especially for the thousands of guides and porters who rely on tourism for their livelihood. What I do know is that I will climb again, not for the glaciers, but for the sheer beauty of the mountain and her people.

Post by Debra Bouwer

For further reading:

A stunning collection of images since 1889

Three views from Uhuru Peak

Kilimanjaro’s Shrinking Glaciers Could Vanish by 2030

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