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East Africa's shrinking icecaps - a harbinger of climate change to come

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN Africa Correspondent  Mar 07, 2016

When Ernest Hemingway wrote the short story "Snows on Kilimanjaro" in 1936, the world as we know it today was still largely intact.

When in 1952 the story was turned into a film, starring such greats as Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Susan Hayward, the troubles of the Second World War had passed, and the Cold War was only in its infancy.
In East Africa, little had changed during those 16 years, apart from the allies throwing Mussolini out of Eritrea and Ethiopia as part of their war effort beyond the battlefields of North Africa.

The post war cries for freedom from the colonial masters which saw India gain independence from Britain in 1947 were still muffled in the early 1950s in Africa, and it would take another decade to finally see Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania become independent nations.

In those final days of the British Empire's hold on East Africa, safaris into the African hinterland and into the first few national parks and game reserves were still a domain for the rich and famous, the privileged few, many of whom still arrived by ship in Mombasa. Air transport, however, gained rapidly in prominence during the 1950s and never looked back after Embakasi in Nairobi was opened in 1958, while in Uganda, Entebbe, initially a military airfield built in the late 1920s, had been modernized already in 1951.

Hemingway's books and a small avalanche of blockbuster Hollywood productions popularized East Africa as a big game destination, and those who visited would still see the magnificent snow and ice cap of Kilimanjaro, the glaciers of Mt. Kenya and the icefields of the Mountains of the Moon, aka Rwenzori Mountains.

Today, it is a different picture though. While around the world, the US Congress Republicans among the most notorious climate change deniers, politicians still try to call into doubt climate change per se and the fallout already seen, the ice and snow caps of East Africa's mountains and mountain ranges have seen a dramatic decline of snow and ice coverage. The changes accelerated over the past 50 years and have reached proportions where the effect of higher temperatures can no longer be ignored.

Reference was already made here several times in the past, with a section of a December 2012 article quoted here:

"In spite of the writing now being clearly on the wall, and climate change projections suggesting an average rise of temperatures by 2 degrees C in 40 years from now, and up to 5+ degrees C by the end of the century, the main polluters have once again succeeded to push tough decisions into the future. This caused dismay among the African delegations as well as among the block of small island nations, which was led by Seychelles’ Ronny Jumeau in recognition of the archipelago’s long-standing efforts to highlight the consequences of rising sea levels for their very survival.

"In particular, here in East Africa, rising temperatures have already shown a significant impact, starting from the melting ice caps of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya and the Rwenzori Mountains, aka Mountains of the Moon, over an accelerated cycle of droughts and floods to the spread of malaria into the previously immune highlands, spurred by warmer climate which allows the anopheles mosquitoes to now flourish at higher altitudes, too.

"The glaciers on Mt. Kenya have shrunk by more than half over the past 30 years; the famous Kilimanjaro ice cap, immortalized by Ernest Hemingway‚Äôs book ‚ÄėSnows of Kilimanjaro‚Äô now is a mere shadow of those olden days, and the glacier caps of the Rwenzoris have receded by several kilometers since the mountains were first conquered over 100 years ago. This evidence belies the assertion peddled in some of the developed nations thought responsible for the rise in green house gases in the first place - that climate change is a mere fiction. Here it is reality already and threatening food production and water sources for tens of millions of people, condemning them to gloom and doom if no major changes take place in the way how the world is dealing with climate change right now."

Climbers of the East African mountains have confirmed that there is now a lot less ice and much more, at times brittle rock before reaching the mountain tops, making in particular the ascend to the Rwenzori peaks of Baker, Stanley and Speke more difficult, besides taking much more time - traversing ice fields is easier than traversing rock fields.

Snow down the flanks of Kilimanjaro is now only extending to lower heights after heavy snowfall, visible as long as it takes for the sun over subsequent days to melt it off, and the situation is similar on Mt. Kenya where the glaciers today are a mere shadow of the those in the olden days.

Safari operators in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda acknowledged the changes, uniformly lamenting the loss of these eye-catching features which provided the backdrop to millions of pictures taken.

"I think our message, when we market mountaineering in East Africa, should be that the time is now to visit us and climb the Mountains of the Moon, Mt. Kenya or Mt. Kilimanjaro. Other tourists who come for safaris, again now is the time to come and see. No one knows what it will be like in say 20 or 30 years. Therefore, no one should wait to come to East Africa for safari now and take their memories home with them for the rest of their lives," said one Ugandan operator with regular business for the Rwenzoris.

What is clear, and weather records support this assertion, is that average temperatures in East Africa - and many other places around the world - have been inching up over the past decades, and the intervals between droughts and flash floods have become more regular, with the impact of both seemingly more severe at every cycle.

In a rapidly changing world, it is the now which counts, and the East African destination marketers descending today and tomorrow on Berlin for the 50th edition of ITB, the International Tourism Bourse, will no doubt pull out all the stops to sell their products, attractions and countries to the world of travelers. Last year, 1.184 billion people traveled - a figure expected to exceed 1.2 billion in 2016 - and Africa, with just about 5 percent of these travelers coming to the continent, will be working overtime to increase both percentage and absolute numbers.

Air connections to East Africa were never as extensive as they are today, allowing passengers from many places around the world to reach Entebbe, Nairobi or Kilimanjaro International with just one stop enroute, making it easier than ever before to visit and at affordable fares.

So climate change in the making or not, depending on which side of the global political divide one stands, now is the time to make a date with East Africa to see what is left of those glorious days of "Snows on Kilimanjaro," visit the game parks, climb the mountains, enjoy the beaches or fish the Indian Ocean, just the same way as Hemingway did, except in much greater comfort considering the standards of today's breed of resorts and safari camps.

East Africa's shrinking icecaps - a harbinger of climate change to come

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