With their rugged glacier summits and heavily forested slopes, Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro stand tall as some of the most impressive land masses in Africa.
But not quite. The famous ice fields on the two mountains are shrinking fast, and could disappear altogether in the next two or three decades, offering dramatic testimony on the devastating effects of global warming.
In Mt Kenya, seven out of the 18 glaciers present 20 years ago have all but disappeared now. And, four of the remaining ones, Lewis, Tyndall, Gregory and Cesar glaciers, have also shrunk by about 60 and 92 per cent of the area they cover.
Experts now warn that the ice on Mt Kenya will disappear by 2050 if urgent action is not taken to combat global warming, which is caused in part by carbon emissions by industrial giants like the US and China.
The situation is just as bad in Tanzania’s imposing Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. The total area covered by snow has decreased from 12 square kilometres in 1900 to two square kilometres in 2000.
Researchers say that the glaciers atop Mt Kilimanjaro have lost 80 per cent of their area over the past century, and despite persisting for over 10,000 years, are likely to disappear completely by 2020.
A recent study by Lonnie Thompson, a professor of Earth Science at the Ohio State University, found that 85 per cent of the ice that made the Mt Kilimanjaro top glaciers in 1912 was gone by 2007.
To measure the recent pace of the retreat, the experts relied on data from aerial photographs taken over time and from stakes and instruments installed on the mountain top in 2000. A geologist at the University of Massachusetts and one of the study’s authors, Mr Douglas R. Hardy, recently stated that the photographs measuring horizontal shrinkage of the ice and stakes indicating the reduction in depth showed both are decreasing at the same rate.
Researchers studying the mountain top, including those involved in this study, differ in their conclusions on how much of the melting could result from human activity or other climatological influences.
The lead author of the study, Prof Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University, concludes that the melting of recent years is unique.
In 2000 he extracted deep cylinders of ice from Kilimanjaro’s glaciers and found that the higher layers were full of elongated bubbles — signs that melting and refreezing had occurred in recent years.
Those who have climbed Mt Kenya say they are quite perturbed by the receding levels of glaciers and appealed for “urgent measures” to save it.
Ms Waithera Kuria of Bootstraps Inc, a mountaineering club in Nairobi, says the levels of glaciers are not the same as they were 15 years ago.
“Based on what we have seen and information from our porter, who has been working there for the last 15 years, things are just not the same... global warming is real,” she says. “When the snow melts, they turn to streams which then form small lakes. There were several lakes, which have now reduced to three.”
It is in view of such alarming evidence that Africa has decided to come up with a common position for negotiations at the much anticipated climate change conference that kicks off today in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The common position was consolidated at the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment held recently in Addis Ababa, in collaboration with the African Union, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the UN Environment Programme.
Key conclusions were that Africa will not accept a new pact to replace Kyoto Protocol, and that Africa requires a new up-scaled finance, technology and capacity for adaptation and risk management.
Their concern is that by replacing Kyoto, industrialised countries might weaken their commitments even further and could include even less support for Africa.
This would be against their common position to call for not less than 1.5 of the gross domestic product for compensation as well as pressing for emission cuts for developed countries by a minimum of 40 per cent from 1990 levels and at least 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.