Nature Study Debunks Kilimanjaro Glacier Myth

Published February 1, 2004

“The icecap atop Mount Kilimanjaro,” reported a 2001 New York Times article, “which for thousands of years has floated like a cool beacon over the shimmering equatorial plain of Tanzania, is retreating at such a pace that it will disappear in less than 15 years, according to new studies.” The article created a media sensation with its alarmist claim and with its emphasis that global warming was surely to blame.

In truly poetic language, the Times reported, “The vanishing of the seemingly perpetual snows of Kilimanjaro that inspired Ernest Hemingway, echoed by similar trends on icecapped peaks from Peru to Tibet, is one of the clearest signs that a global warming in the last 50 years appears to have exceeded typical climate shifts.”

Global warming, however, is not to blame for the retreating Kilimanjaro ice cap, according to a November 24, 2003, article published in Nature magazine.

Deforestation “More Likely Culprit”

According to Nature‘s Betsy Mason, “Although it’s tempting to blame the (Kilimanjaro) ice loss on global warming, researchers think that deforestation of the mountain’s foothills is the more likely culprit.”

Forests at the base of Kilimanjaro have been steadily disappearing for decades. “Without the forests’ humidity,” Mason reports, “previously moisture-laden winds blew dry. No longer replenished with water, the ice is evaporating in the strong equatorial sunshine.”

“Why has [the Kilimanjaro ice cap] been melting so relentlessly?” asked climatologist John Daly. “The greenhouse industry say ‘global warming,’ but then they would say that, wouldn’t they?

“The only problem with that knee-jerk explanation is that there has been no measurable atmospheric warming in the region of Kilimanjaro,” noted Daly. “Satellites have been measuring temperature since 1979 in the free troposphere between 1,000 and 8,000 meters altitude, and they show no tropospheric warming in that area. None.”

According to Daly, human-induced global warming should not have been named the primary culprit, even before a connection to deforestation was made.

Said Daly, “Kilimanjaro is above most of the weather and is thus exposed to the equatorial sun, a sun that has been hotter during the twentieth century than at any time since the medieval period. That would be a sufficient explanation in itself for the depletion of the ice cap.”

“The advance/buildup or retreat/melting of glacial ice is often interpreted as a sign of climate change,” reports the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change ( “Climate alarmists have already rendered their verdict: There has been a massive and widespread retreat of glaciers over the past century, which they predict will only intensify under continued CO2-induced global warming. This assessment, however, may be a bit premature.”

According to the Center, “Following the peak of Little Ice Age coldness, it should come as no surprise that many records indicate widespread glacial retreat, as temperatures began to rise in the mid- to late-1800s and many glaciers returned to positions characteristic of pre-Little Ice Age times.

Some Glaciers Shrinking, Others Growing

“What people may find surprising, however, is that in many instances the rate of glacier retreat has not increased over the past 70 years; and in some cases glacier mass balance has actually increased, all during a time when the atmosphere experienced the bulk of the increase in its CO2 content.”

A study published in Progress in Physical Geography (Braithwaite, R.J., 26: 76-95 (2002)), analyzed mass balance measurements of 246 glaciers from around the world between 1946 and 1995. According to the study’s author, “there are several regions with highly negative mass balances in agreement with a public perception of ‘the glaciers are melting,’ but there are also regions with positive balances.”

Within Europe, for example, “Alpine glaciers are generally shrinking, Scandinavian glaciers are growing, and glaciers in the Caucasus are close to equilibrium for 1980-95,” according to Braithwaite. Significantly, regarding this most recent 15-year period of time, Braithwaite noted “there is no obvious common or global trend of increasing glacier melt in recent years.”

Daly predicts that because of mountain base deforestation, and all other things being equal, “What happens on Kilimanjaro will also be happening on countless mountains all over the world where forests on lower slopes have been replaced by open pasture.

“Blaming it all on ‘global warming’ was just too glib and convenient for an industry desperate to convince a skeptical public that the end of the world was nigh,” said Daly. “With a more down-to-earth cause like this identified, other ‘global-warming-did-it’ phenomena should be looked at again for simple local causes like this.”

“Not a Thermometer”

“The Kilimanjaro ice cap is not a thermometer,” said S. Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the nonprofit Science & Environmental Policy Project in Arlington, Virginia. “It may well be melting, but this is simply a delayed consequence of a natural climate warming during the early part of the twentieth century. Moreover, it will continue to melt as long as the climate doesn’t return to the temperatures of the Little Ice Age of past centuries.”

Added Singer, “The National Academy of Sciences published a report (in 2000) that defines the geographic regions of warming and cooling during the last 20 years. Surface measurements of East Africa show no warming trend. Weather satellites show a pronounced cooling trend of the atmosphere there. No one has questioned these data.”

“One of the endlessly fascinating aspects of modern journalism is the absolute lack of critical insight tendered towards environmental scares,” said Pat Michaels, research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and a past president of the American Association of State Climatologists. “A cursory inspection of (Kilimanjaro) data shows that Kilimanjaro’s glaciers would be dying even if Homo sapiens were still just hanging around the trees of the Rift Valley, a few hundred miles to the West.

“From 1953 through 1976, 21 percent of the original (ice cap) area was uncovered. This was during a period of global cooling–yes, cooling–of 0.13º F,” said Michaels. “Around Kilimanjaro, satellite data show a cooling of 0.40º F since 1979 Still, Kilimanjaro’s glaciers continued to shrink.”

Added Michaels, “Kilimanjaro turns out to be just another snow job, precipitated by a journalistic community that has lost its desire for critical factual investigation when it comes to our globe’s environment.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].