The twilight of Africa’s glaciers

Africa is home to three glacier-capped mountains. Within decades, scientists say, the glaciers will be gone.  Mount Kenya’s will be the first to go, with researchers predicting their disappearance as soon as 2030. The mountain would be among the first in the world to entirely lose its glaciers because of human-induced climate change.

The peaks of Mount Kenya – once covered in blinding white ice and now an arid brown – are a testament to losses already suffered in this part of Africa and a harbinger of what is to come.

The 17,000-foot mountain straddling the equator about 85 miles north of Nairobi is Africa’s second highest. For generations, Mount Kenya has been a source of tourism, of scientific study, of wonder and of lore. Its verdant slopes have also become a refuge for Kenyans battered by years-long drought linked to climate change. But even here, rain is more sporadic than it used to be.

On once fertile farms around the mountain’s base, harvests have failed in recent years as rain has become scarce. Farmers have tried pumping in water from Mount Kenya’s streams and rivers, but these are already depleted because of overuse and reduced rainfall.

As temperatures have increased and rain has gotten less predictable in Kenya, every part of Mount Kenya’s environment – from its mixed forests to its boggy heathlands and grasslands – has been touched. Some plant species have migrated up the mountain. Entire ecosystems, such as the bamboo forest, are at risk of being crowded out.

Researchers who have studied the retreating glaciers on Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania say their shrinkage is largely caused by changes in ocean weather patterns linked to global warming. Those changes mean that across East Africa, there has been less-predictable rain and longer periods of drought. And in the mountains, there’s been less snow.

As glaciers get smaller, they have less snowfall to absorb solar radiation. So the smaller a glacier becomes, the more quickly it melts.