Will There Be No More Snows of Kilimanjaro?

by Pushan Hinduja

Mount Kilimanjaro is located 300 kilometers south of the equator in Tanzania, and reaches an altitude of almost 20,000 feet. More than half a century ago, Hemingway vividly depicted the beauty and “whiteness” of its glimmering ice sheets in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”. Today, however, evidence indicates that the famed ice sheets of Kilimanjaro might disappear by 2020. Soon after these scientific reports were released, scientists around the world attributed the decline to global warming, and looked to the ice fields that Hemingway had depicted as a reinforcement to the imminent danger of climate change.

Global temperatures around the world have seen an increase. The global temperature curve shows trends of warming since the middle of the nineteenth century, with a severe increase in the rate within the past thirty years (Helama 2015). Several species have started to move towards the poles, as ocean temperatures have been rising as well. In addition, mountains around the world are also seeing large retreats in their glacial ice sheets. If that is so, then why does Kilimanjaro receive so much attention? According to Helama, Kilimanjaro is the focus of so many climate change scientists because of its legendary status. As a result, in 2000, a group of scientists from various countries drilled six ice cores in the glaciers of Kilimanjaro to study the retreat of its ice sheets. Eventually, the scientists were able to show that the “extent of the ice field had decreased 80% over the twentieth century,” predicting its disappearance by 2020.

As the 21st century progressed, scientists began developing new theories for the decline in ice on Kilimanjaro, bringing about some controversy. Research has found that the changes in ice are more related to the change in the region’s weather and hydrology, than to actual warming of temperatures on top of the mountain. In fact, Helama points out that the temperatures at the high altitude of Kilimanjaro’s peak haven’t been rising when compared to global warming throughout the rest of the world. The scientists now argue that the ice loss is due to a process called sublimation, in which ice vaporizes directly to water vapor in the air, never becoming liquid. The cause is reduced cloud-cover, exposing the ice to more solar radiation. Ultimately, however, the cloud-cover changes could be due to the warming of the Indian Ocean that is a feature of climate change.

Helama writes that regardless of how, the snows of Kilimajaro could be “doomed to vanish in the near future,” and although we weren’t there when Hemingway saw it in 1936, it must have been much more massive due to the large amounts of ice that have already disappeared. The ice on Kilimanjaro might disappear, but Helama writes that it will live on in Hemingway’s stories forever.

Helama, S. 2015. Ernest Hemingway’s description of the Mountaintop in “The Snows of kilimanjaro” and Climate Change Research. The Hemingway Review. Volume 34, Number 2, pp. 118-123. DOI: 10.1353/hem.2015.0014

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