The golden, melting, re-freezing and ultimately disappearing snows of Kilimanjaro

November 4, 2009

Papa Hemingway probably didn’t see this coming.

When he wrote “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in the 1930s, Ernest Hemingway described the summit of that African mountain as “wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun.”

It’s still wide, but may not be white much longer, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that says the remaining ice fields atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania could be gone in 20 years or less, a casualty of climate change. Changes in clouds and precipitation play a minor role but the scientists say it’s mostly due to global warming.

Here’s the trail of data released by the National Science Foundation, which helped fund the research:

— 85 percent of the ice that covered the mountain in 1912 had been lost by 2007, and 26 percent of the ice there in 2000 is now gone.

— A radioactive signal marking the 1951-52 “Ivy” atomic tests that was detected in 2000 some 1.6 meters (5.25 feet) below the surface of the Kilimanjaro ice is now lost, with an estimated 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) missing from the tops of the current ice fields.

— Elongated bubbles trapped in the frozen ice at the top of one ice core show surface ice melted and refroze, apparently the only time there’s been sustained melting in this core in the last 11,700 years.

— Even a 300-year-old drought some 4,200 years ago didn’t melt the ice, though it did leave an inch-thick layer of dust.

These observations confirm that the current climate conditions at Mount Kilimanjaro are unique over the last 11 millennia. The same changes are happening on Mount Kenya and the Rwenzori Mountains in Africa, in the South American Andes and in the Himalayas.

Read more about it here.

Might be something for climate negotiators in Barcelona and on Capitol Hill to think about.

Photo credit: Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University (Ice fields atop Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro glow golden in the last of the afternoon sun.)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

This is a fascinating article. Does anyone monitor these predictions about global warming, such as in Al Gore’s famous book of global warming predictions. Let’s see. Increasing frequency of class 5 hurricanes. Oops, didn’t happen. Increased atmospheric temperatures worldwide. Oops they went down instead. Accelerated rising of the oceans. Oops not. Melting polar icecaps. Oops. Let’s see, I think I’ll get to work on my new book of captivating predictions. I’ve got a pretty good shot at matching this level of accuracy. Oh you say these will all come to pass in good time. Well that was supposed to happen regarding global cooling predicted in the 70s. I guess one way or another they’ll be right eventually. I think the solution is to increase the tax on fuel $5 a gallon and sent the proceeds to me.

Posted by John Jones | Report as abusive

Check the change of land use around Kilimanjaro, the temperatures on the mountain top have not increased above freezing, so the lack of snow and ice is due to reduced precipitation – not Global Warming, as far as I know, ice will not melt if the temperature is below 0 Degrees C

Posted by Alan Fields | Report as abusive

“Changes in clouds and precipitation play a minor role but the scientists say its mostly due to global warming.”

Presumably, the effects of deforestation are included in the ‘minor role’.
Now AGWers can quietly acknowledge among themselves that Al Gore was right, after all.
But, as with the recently complicated hurricane situation…this is too complex an issue to argue with deniers.

Posted by Sam Spade | Report as abusive

Correct, ice will not melt if temperture is below O deg.C – but it will sublimate and disappear if not replenished through precipiation.
We can wring out millions of ideas from climat data, but warming of the atmosphere is #1 cause of melting ice – on Kilimajaro and in the Arctics.

Posted by Torben R | Report as abusive

John Jones is exactly the kind of person who makes internet blogging very dangerous. Not only is he completely wrong but any uneducated person reading his rambling post could get a very bad idea about climate change. The debate is over John, everyone agrees it’s real and happening now.. wake up and join the rest of us in reality.

Posted by William Spendlove | Report as abusive

Look at an article in Science, 2002, volume 298, number 5593, page 589-593, by Lonnie Thompson and others. This study notes a straight-line decrease in Kilimanjaro ice “from 1912 to 2000″ (figure 1). So? This ice loss is a weather phenomenon that has preceded, in time, the “global warming” hypothesis of man-made contributions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The Kilimanjaro ice would be disappearing even if we had all been riding bicycles since 1912.

Posted by MeToo | Report as abusive

Absolute hogwash. Snow cover on Kilimanjaro is solely dependent upon the amount of forest-related evaporation happening in the foothills and plains around the mountain. Recent increased forestation has actually increased precipitation and snow cover over a decade ago. AGW climate change doesnt have anything to do with it, these numpties should be shoved out of the Academy on their keisters for attempting such epic fail.

Posted by Mike Lorrey | Report as abusive

Did you of you people get the part about the 5.25′ GAIN from 1952-2000? Doesn’t exactly jive with a “straight line decrease from 1912-2000, does it? This “debate” is
definantely NOT over. If you climate “believers” would start using facts in your science, instead of computer models, it would be most helpful.

Posted by Charlie Lawson | Report as abusive

The glaciers of mt.kilimanjaro are melting at a faster rate due to global warming.The increase in temperatures in the past 100 years is concerning.Glaciers in tropical latitudes,on Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and on mountains in Papua New Guinea, are collectively melting faster than their counterparts in higher latitudes in places like Alaska, Russia, the Himalayas and Chile which are also retreating.
kilimanjaro tanzania facts

Posted by Musicmanias | Report as abusive