An interesting article was published in Der Spiegel a week ago on the glaciers atop Mount Kilimanjaro, and the research into why the glaciers are melting.
The article features Lonnie Thompson who has been taking cores from tropical glaciers for a long time, and publishing articles about them, without bothering to put the data into public archive for others to examine.
Thompson, widely viewed as the pioneer of modern tropical glacier research, is a living legend among climate researchers. He’s met with former US Vice President Al Gore to give him his personal assessment of climate change, and music magazine Rolling Stone has celebrated him as an "ice hunter." Where others see nothing but fields of rubble, Thompson uncovers evidence of dying glaciers and the traces of a 300-year catastrophic drought that spelled the downfall of entire civilizations. For Thompson, the ice at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro is an archive, and he intends to use it to divine both the past and future of Africa’s climate.
Thompson has some cherished ideas about why the glacier atop Mount Kilimanjaro is disappearing: global warming.
Like the ebb and flow of ocean tides, the African glaciers have expanded and contracted over the centuries. But beginning in about 1880, tropical glaciers began receding more rapidly and more abruptly than in the past. In places where extensive ice caps reached down to altitudes of 4,500 meters (14,750 feet) only a hundred years ago, all that remains today are narrow glacier strips and isolated chunks of ice in a moonlike landscape of lava sand. Thompson managed to turn Kilimanjaro into a symbol of global warming — and he has triggered a heated scientific debate in the process.
His colleague, Doug Hardy thinks that the evidence points in another direction and disagrees strongly with Thompson’s suggestions.
Climatologist Doug Hardy is one of Thompson’s biggest adversaries in the world of glacier research. "The phrase global warming is misleading, as are the alarmist reports of the complete disappearance of all glaciers on Kilimanjaro," says Hardy. The American scientist acts as a weatherman of sorts for the ice-capped mountain. And although he and Thompson work closely together, Hardy disagrees with much of what Thompson says, arguing that Thompson’s speculations are excessive and his predictions far too premature.
Hardy relies on the evidence gained from the mountain since he established an automated weather station on the peak in 2000:
When Thompson drilled his first Kilimanjaro ice samples in 2000, he asked Hardy to set up a station that would enable the scientists to learn more about the conditions under which the glaciers formed. Ironically, the data Hardy’s equipment has been supplying ever since contradicts Thompson’s theory of the tropical glaciers rapid demise as a result of rising global temperatures.
"Dryness, not warming, is what’s causing the glaciers to recede," says Hardy. According to his readings, the average annual temperature at the station is minus seven degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit). Hardy believes that what the glaciers lack is enough new snow — possibly because moist winds coming from the Indian Ocean, 350 kilometers (218 miles) away, are weakening. Besides, he adds, the amount of water from glacier melt is relatively insignificant, because most of the ice is "sublimed" — it evaporates immediately, bypassing the liquid phase.
A plant biologist, Andreas Hemp also disagrees with Thompson and points to a further mechanism for the disappearance of the glacier:
The climate data collected by the German colonial administration show that precipitation has declined by about a third in the last hundred years," says Hemp. Some mountain streams are little more than thin trickles of water today. But Hemp sees overpopulation as a more serious problem for the region than global climate change.
"In that span of time, the number of people living at the base of the mountain has grown twenty-fold, or to about a million. The forest suffers as a result," says Kemp. "Illegal loggers are assaulting the rain forest from below, and fires have lowered the upper range of the evergreen forest — by about 500 meters in the last 30 years." Poverty is often at the root of the forest fires, which are set by illegal honey gatherers who burn sticks of wood to protect themselves against aggressive African bees.
The loss of about 150 square kilometers (58 square miles) of mountainous forest in the past 30 years has changed the area’s microclimate by making it drier. "The destruction of the forests may be accelerating the loss of glaciers, but not vice-versa," says Hemp. "In fact, all the excitement about melting glaciers has almost become part of the problem." As Hemp sees it, the park administration manages to avoid taking responsibility by blaming receding glaciers and deforestation on global climate change.
The article is fascinating and I recommend it. But I cannot resist a couple of digs at Thompson:
"We have to collect as much data as possible today, even if we’re not exactly sure what it means, because in a few decades it’ll be too late," says Thompson.
Will you be archiving your data that we’re still waiting for more than 23 years after you described them, or will we have to wait for all of them to melt first?
"Perhaps we’re seeing evidence of the same kind of drastic climate change today," Thompson speculates, "except that this time it’s more severe and is happening more rapidly." What if the glaciers on Kilimanjaro do in fact disappear one day? "Then we’ll study the ice fields on Mars," says Thompson, defiantly. The man is dead-serious. He’s already been in touch with NASA.
Somebody should tell Lonnie Thompson that the icefields on Mars are melting as well. I blame global warming …