Why East Africa’s glaciers are on the brink of extinction

Why East Africa’s glaciers are on the brink of extinction

View of Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit | Kilimanjaro Hikers (Facebook)

Last edit 6 April 2022

Michael Sommers

Due to climate change, East Africa’s remaining trio of tropical glaciers – on Mount Kenya, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Rwenzori Mountains – are expected to vanish by 2040.

As world leaders, scientists, and activists gathered in Glasgow for the recent U.N. Climate Change Conference, global media was sounding the alarm about the imminent demise of East Africa’s remaining glaciers. The scintillating stuff of legends, this trio of equatorial glaciers crowning Mount Kenya, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Rwenzori Mountains spawned the Nile River and inspired Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Yet now, instead of a life source, these vanishing blocks of ice have become a prophetic symbol of the destruction wrought by climate change.

The “Near Future” is Imminent

“The rapid shrinking of the last remaining glaciers in eastern Africa, which are expected to melt entirely in the near future, signals the threat of imminent and irreversible change to the Earth system,” warned World Meteorological Organization’s secretary-general, Petteri Taalas, in October this year. Scientists have been tracking the melting of these glaciers for decades, but in recent years the pace has accelerated at an alarming rate. The “near future” is now surprisingly imminent; the UN predicts the glaciers will completely disappear by the 2040s.

Global warming is the major culprit in the glaciers’ untimely disappearance. Yet, surprisingly, rising air temperatures are not to blame. Rainer Prinz is a senior scientist, specializing in glaciology, at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Having spent years studying East Africa’s glaciers, Prinz emphasizes that, unlike those at more northerly latitudes, these tropical glaciers – which sit high above the snowline (where it’s always cold, even in East Africa) – aren’t sensitive to changing air temperatures. They are, however, uniquely susceptible to changes in the amount and frequency of precipitation. Abundant snowfall is what ensures these glaciers’ survival. Apart from adding mass to the ice blocks, snow effectively reflects sunlight (instead of absorbing it) while precipitation-bearing clouds attenuate solar radiation.

With 2040 fast approaching, Prinz confesses that no human intervention can save these glaciers from impending extinction. “The only possibility is that future precipitation levels might change, even with climate change. There’s a chance that in coming years, humid tropical regions could actually see more precipitation.” Prinz explains that Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda straddle both dry and wet tropical regions. “Based on our models, East Africa could go either way.”

Economic and Spiritual Loss

If the glaciers vanish, the biggest impacts are likely to be the less obvious ones. Contrary to popular belief, East Africa’s glaciers aren’t a source of water for the lowlands. “That’s a myth,” says Prinz. “They’re much too small. The highest precipitation rates occur in the forested areas of the highlands, which provide the largest source of water.”

The biggest loss is likely to be felt in tourism. Over the years, the spectacular paradox of gleaming ice-tipped mountains ascending from a sweltering tropical landscape has seduced many visitors to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway. Meanwhile, for local inhabitants, the most dramatic loss could be spiritual. For many, these lofty white summits are the sacred dwelling places of traditional deities. “In losing the glaciers, people will be losing a part of their spiritual life,” says Prinz.